The Covid Vaccine and Learning to Love the Technological Fix

Our best hope for moving beyond the pandemic is vaccination, but not all problems can be addressed through technology

by Roger Pielke, Jr., The Honest Broker Newsletter

Exactly one year ago, we saw the first reports of an unknown influenza-like disease in Wuhan, China. Twelve months later the world continues to struggle with the consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has been at once a global public health crisis and a global economic crisis.

There will be many lessons to learn from the pandemic and the policy failures and successes that have accompanied it. But one lesson is already crystal clear — in the 21st century global health and prosperity depend crucially on science and technology and their governance.

The coronavirus vaccines that are now being administered around the world certainly offer the best hope for moving beyond the global coronavirus pandemic. Imagine if the only tools in the policy tool box were shutdowns, masks, social distancing and other behavioral approaches that have proven to be highly divisive and politicized.

Of course, vaccination is also political and vaccine hesitancy is a problem, not just for coronavirus but for other diseases as well. But even so, evidence for the effectiveness of vaccination for public health is undeniable. In 2017, the World Health Organization estimated that vaccination against diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and measles prevents 2-3 million deaths every year. In 1963, measles killed more than 2.6 million people around the world. Thanks to the measles vaccine, by 2017 that number dropped to 95,000.

Vaccines work.

They are a perfect example of what has been called a “technological fix” — a phrase popularized in 1966 by physicist Alvin Weinberg. He recognized that problems involving societal behavior were “more complex” than engineering challenges like rocket science. Weinberg explained that typically, “to solve social problems one must induce social change – one must persuade many people to behave differently than they have behave in the past.” In the Covid pandemic we are all now very familiar with what efforts to implement social change looks like — mask mandates, lockdowns, gathering limits, travel restrictions and so on. The pandemic has illustrated that social change is difficult to implement as policy, and sometimes practically impossible. Continue reading ...