Whether or not they were looking for it, the COVID-19 crisis has given epidemiologists bonafide public power. "At this point, if Drosten says it is too early, that carries as much weight as Merkel saying it," quipped German economist Marcel Fratzscher about his country's top epidemiologist Christian Drosten and top politician Angela Merkel.
There is no doubt that the pandemic, epidemiologists, virologists and medical professionals worldwide have stepped into the muddy terrain of national politics. Though the public may not understand every technical detail epidemiologists offer on TV or at press conferences, there's a certain comfort in listening to the scientists who have spent their lives studying the kinds of epidemics that now occupy our minds, if not lives.
Still, as Kenyan economist David Ndii pointed out on Twitter, the current rise of the "epistocracy" – the aristocracy of the wise — should be watched with caution. Although doctors may be adept at curing our bodies and understanding the dynamics of pathogens, they have far less experience managing people and guiding societies.
One example, where the political and the scientific have successfully been embodied in one man, is Taiwanese Vice President Chen Chien-jen, who also happens to be a Johns Hopkins-trained epidemiologist and an expert in viruses. Praised for balancing his dual role of politician and scientist, he has nonetheless kept his scientist hat on through just about everything he's said during the crisis.
But is it ultimately possible, or even desirable, to keep politics out of the conversation? Wouldn't it be naive to think that expert task forces can prevent crisis-related decisions from getting political? Indian policy analyst Sanjaya Baru wrote in The Wirethat every policy decision pertaining to crisis management is ultimately about power, and there is no reason the coronavirus crisis should be any different. Let's just hope that more power than not is in the hands of the wise.
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