The future of our country is being fought over by two types of expert. In the red corner, I give you the scientists. They're the ones with buck teeth, glasses and wild hair. In the blue corner, the economists. Soberly dressed, three pens in their breast pocket and dodgy haircuts. Scientists versus the Dismal Scientists. Who's winning, as we move to what the Taoiseach last Friday called 'Phase 2 Plus' of the opening up of the lockdown?
Some accuse scientists of not caring about the economy and the ''real world'' as they deliberate in their ivory towers and spout advice, deeming themselves infallible. They are blamed for having a fat paycheque every month and job security. I say to those accusers: not so fast. Scientists are well aware that their salary and the funding needed to carry out their now-essential research depends on a successful economy. No economy, no science. The doctors giving advice also know full well - no economy, no health service. And guess what? Some scientists against the odds (given their personal hygiene standards…) have fallen in love and had children, and they worry about their children getting jobs one day.
On the other hand, economists are sometimes accused of being prepared to let old people die to save the economy. Some of them say the effect of lockdown on overall health will outweigh the effect of Covid-19. There is as yet no evidence to support that. It's a grim comparison. In both cases, people die, it's just a matter of who and how many.
Both, however, are being accused of that great phrase that was coined in 1972 by a Yale psychologist: Groupthink. If scientists practise that they make little progress and often fail. Successful science means challenging the group, as that means progress. The best economists have to be outsiders, too, challenging the status quo. But who should have primacy in the Covid-19 world?
Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Maybe the specialty that uses the least jargon? Try this for size. Science says Covid-19 is caused by a beta coronavirus in the Pisuviricota phylum, which is a positive sense single stranded RNA virus of zoonotic origin, 200 nm in diameter comprising S, E and M proteins and a nucleocapsid. Easy right? Economics says Covid-19 will cause an 11pc fall in Gross Domestic Product in 2020 with an EU recovery instrument that will probably comprise Payless and Benched Jobs, and a temporary and targeted derogation from SEs and SCEs with taxation being managed under the DAC. Hopefully this will happen ASAP… Child's play right? When it comes to jargon, it's a nil all draw.
But what do science and economics actually say at this stage of the pandemic?
Science says we must proceed with caution during the phased opening of our country. We should be led by the data. That data has allowed us to move to Phase 2 Plus. However, never forget, this is a deadly virus, much more damaging than flu. Lots of science supports this, including a recent study showing that Covid-19 is nine times more dangerous than severe flu when it comes to causing your blood to clot, with severe consequences.
Covid-19 became the biggest cause of death in the world in 2020 on April 25, with at that stage 208,436 deaths. Malaria came next with 206,509 deaths. Flu for 2020 was way down the list at 65,999 deaths. Some people who get over Covid-19 have ongoing symptoms, like trouble breathing, persistent fatigue and organ damage. It's a virus we shouldn't mess with, because it will mess with us. The vast majority of scientists say if we aren't careful, there will be a second surge and another lockdown, just like the one we've had. Result: even more economic damage. Iran has already seen a second wave emerging most likely because they opened too quickly. The Iranian government is accusing the people of ignoring the instructions (including mask wearing) and has warned that it might be forced to restore the lockdown.
And if we're not careful, there is no reason to assume Ireland will be any different. We have limited immunity in our population, and there may well be pockets of virus still out there. One thing for sure, going to Phase 2 plus plus plus would be a big mistake. If we repress it further in the coming months with judicious opening, the only source will then be people coming into Ireland. That will be our next big concern.
What does economics say? Open the economy as soon as possible. Try not to listen too much to the doom-saying scientists and doctors. Rush everything along. They say scientists often contradict each other and change their minds. Do they not realise that this is actually how science is supposed to work? It is combative and that helps it reach the truth, through experimentation and measured analysis.
However, when it comes to economists, US President Harry Truman famously asked to be sent a one-handed economist, because he got tired of economists who said ''on the other hand''. So, we have the clash. Go slow, with caution, informed by science. Go fast and hope for the best.
But let's look more closely and see if we can find common ground. Scientists love Darwin and survival of the fittest. Evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said: ''Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.'. If this virus had been let run its course, every family in Ireland would most likely have had a fatality, and the fittest would have survived. We are using our scientific knowhow and ultimately new medicines and vaccines to save the people who would otherwise die. Isn't that the great triumph of modern medicine? To defy Darwin.
Equally, in business, in the current crisis, the fittest might survive by adapting and innovating. Economic intervention is, however, keeping those businesses that might be vulnerable in the current crisis alive. No different, and both important. Science is helping sick humans and economic policy is helping sick companies, both sick through no fault of their own.
So, what about if we work together and stop fighting? Wouldn't that be better? Scientists and economists should issue a joint manifesto to the Government for this next phase, that both sign up to, bringing their specific expertise. Open the economy as soon as possible making sure to mitigate against a second surge as much as is humanly possible. Economists should join scientists in one roar with facemasks on: for crying out loud, get the testing, tracing and isolating procedures up to scratch. Make the wearing of masks in places where social distancing is challenging mandatory. Even The Economist magazine is demanding that. Look after places where the vulnerable are.
Allow businesses to open based on what science says about where the virus is most contagious: the three Cs: Closed places, Crowds and Close Contact. Help businesses with those features mitigate against spread of the virus where possible, with ventilation, hygiene and mask wearing. Tell us the scientific basis for your decisions to bring us along. The sole reason: to save lives, prevent another lockdown and save the economy. All interlinked. Scientists and economists unite! Together we can beat Covid-19: you have nothing to lose but your jargon.
Luke O'Neill is professor of biochemistry in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin