Intubate the gov’t with science
Serious COVID-19 cases require hospitalization and often intubation, to provide the body with the oxygen it requires. Why the oxygen is required is ironic—the body’s response to the virus sometimes creates an immunological overreaction that impedes oxygen absorption. In “protecting” itself, the body induces an often fatal consequence.
What is happening to the distressed COVID-19 patient is exactly what is happening to the body politic. The government’s knee-jerk reaction of mobilizing the police and the military to deal with the pandemic is the immunological overkill that closes itself to the life-saving oxygen—scientific, medical, logistical, technological advice that would help government to craft more responsive and effective policies to deal with the pandemic. The main problem of government as the patient is this: It refuses to be intubated with science advice.
The poor political standing of scientists in providing policy advice to government is evident in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The leadership and martial enforcement style of President Duterte has largely bypassed the science community, defining the COVID-19 problem not as a medical issue but one of social control. This approach is embodied by the IATF-EID for COVID-19 and the complex police-enforced quarantine system.
Now on its second year, the pandemic has continued to elude control, surging even when vaccines are already being rolled out in various societies including the Philippines. Government must now rethink the way it makes policy on this pandemic.
Last year, Benjamin M. Vallejo Jr. and Rodrigo Angelo C. Ong already published a timely article, “Policy responses and government science advice for the COVID-19 pandemic in the Philippines: January to April 2020” (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2590061720300521). The article reviewed the epidemiological, economic, communications, and human rights-related actions of various government agencies. The observations of the authors have remarkably become even more significant as the Philippine COVID-19 experience has extended way beyond the period covered in the study.
They suggest that instead of ad hoc task forces, there is a “need to have formal structures in the Philippine science advice ecosystem to synthesize scientific information” and to scan the horizon for expected and future crises. These regular science advice bodies “should actively engage scientists, giving informal advice even from advocacies which often have political agendas that consist of the bulk of science advice to government.”
The utility of this reflexive mode of science advice emerged out of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan in March 2011. The idea has been institutionalized in the creation of the International Network for Government Science Advice. Many governments and scientists the world over recognize that formal and bureaucratic channels of advice are too slow for the compressed time frames of crises. Crises require “focused and rapid science advice from the widest range of science expertise available.”
The Philippines must benefit from this insight in order to manage the COVID-19 pandemic better. The study recommends that the National Academy of Science and Technology, which is the science adviser to the president of the Philippines, be more actively and meaningfully involved. So should the Philippine American Academy of Science and Engineering. I would add that the National Research Council of the Philippines has an explicit policy advice role, as do several other scientific research agencies of the government spread across the various government departments. I cannot avoid the nagging thought that perhaps the President needs to be reminded of their existence.
Beyond engaging scientists in general, the Vallejo and Ong study particularly calls for the involvement of “social scientists who in the past have been largely ignored.” They note that “scientific expertise in the government science bureaucracy have been biased for the natural sciences and economics.” Social scientists are needed “to assess that science advice is effective as it courses through different expertise communities with their different sociologies.” The study concludes: COVID-19 presents “an opportunity never before in the history of the Philippines, to locate science and technology as essential to responsive government and governance.”
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