Covid-19 pandemic: The return of Lysenkoism?

History will eventually judge which policy or country was better in handling the Covid-19 pandemic. There certainly wasn’t a best. At the beginning of the pandemic, virtually every country in the world followed China’s example of severe lockdowns and containment. Sweden was an exception, choosing not to restrict the movement of its citizens. A John Hopkins University study has, however, found that “the lockdowns have had little to no public health effects”. Although, they had a devastating effect on economies. A recent Israeli study, the country that managed one of the fastest vaccine rollouts, has measured how many lives Covid-19 vaccines saved and found confirmed deaths from Covid-19 in the elderly population – those over 70 after mass vaccination – were 370 versus 5,120 without vaccinations. The pandemic had thrust scientists who were used to working quietly in their laboratories onto the main stage with those who questioned the dominating narratives on lockdowns and vaccines labelled as “the fringe” or anti-vaxxers. Prof. Nicola de Jager from the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University writes about the dangers of these labels, and closing down scientific debates on lockdowns, vaccines and treatments during the Covid-19 pandemic. This “Lysenkoism”, she says, is the feature of a totalitarian regime and has no place in pluralistic democracies and may have cost livelihoods and lives. – Linda van Tilburg

Closing narratives in addressing the Covid-19 pandemic: The return of Lysenkoism?

By Nicola de Jager* 

In 20th century Soviet Union, a plant-breeder, Trofim Denisovich Lysenko observed that his pea seeds germinated faster under low temperatures. Erroneously, he concluded that the low temperatures had caused ‘revolutionary leaps’ in species formation. Lysenko’s ‘theory’ resonated with the ideology of the communist regime, which was eager for a quick solution to its current famine. From then on, no contention or alternative explanation was countenanced. A hundred years of science-based agriculture was swept aside, and a campaign of suppression ensued, with more than 3,000 biologists and scientists imprisoned, vilified and even executed. This pursuit of a single narrative and the denial of scientific debate had very real consequences for the people of 20th century Soviet Union … further famine and starvation.

Lysenkoism is now a term that describes the shutting down of scientific-debate and the distortion of scientific facts or theories for purposes deemed politically or socially desirable. This is how totalitarian regimes operate. At their core they seek complete domination through the imposition of an accepted narrative. Those who would contend or bring in ‘unwanted’ difference are identified as the ‘enemies of the people’. These enemies are broadly defined in terms of categories and groups within society, establishing the Manichean ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary. And then to ensure conformity, media is controlled, and propaganda used to disseminate the accepted narrative.

On the other side of the regime spectrum are liberal democracies. These regimes, in theory, recognise the importance of pluralism and access to multiple sources of information, combined with the values of civility, tolerance, compromise and liberty. These core characteristics emanate from the recognition that no-one knows everything, nor do they know it perfectly, and that the greatest threats to human liberty in the last century were due to centralised states with no limitations on their power. Such an approach to political governance is also based on the acknowledgement of what has historically happened under such totalitarian systems; actively and often brutally shutting down viewpoint diversity, and running roughshod over individual rights in the name of the ‘common good’.

The Covid-19 pandemic appears to have made the world vulnerable again to such totalitarian tendencies. The last two years have been dominated by single narratives and the vilification of anyone or any institution that dared present other research, findings or approaches. These dominant narratives are easily recognisable, as they have been consistently propagated in the mainstream media: only lockdowns work, there is no treatment besides a vaccine, the Covid-19 vaccines developed in a year are ‘safe and effective’, and we can only get back to normal if everyone gets the shot. Viable other options in response to the pandemic were effectively silenced through the domination of the narrative, the use of delegitimising language and then employing ‘fact-checkers’ to ensure only the ‘correct’ ideas were heard. As former Harvard Professor Martin Kulldorff, public health pandemic expert and one of the drafters of the Great Barrington Declaration noted: “For some reason, a public official narrative was established, and you weren’t allowed to question it – which, of course, is very detrimental, both to the pandemic and how to deal with the pandemic, because you have to have a vibrant discussion to figure out how best to deal with these things.”

Doctors, public health specialists, virologists, epidemiologists, political commentators, tennis players, truckers, nurses, soldiers and ordinary citizens who dared contend with the dominant narrative were quickly silenced or vilified as the ‘them’ and apportioned with delegitimising slurs such as ‘fringe’, minority view, unscientific, pseudo-science, reactionary, flat-earthers, anti-vax and neo-Nazi. The concern with such terms is they disqualify another approach before it has even been properly considered. It is the antithesis of pluralism.

Other viable approaches included focused protection and early treatment protocols. Contra to the blanket lockdowns, the Great Barrington Declaration advocated for a focused protection approach, protecting the vulnerable population, while mitigating the collateral damage of lockdowns. This approach was especially relevant for the poor and for developing countries with weak economies. It has since been revealed that Dr Francis Collins, then the director of the National Institute of Health (USA) had, in an exposed email, told Dr Anthony Fauci to carry out a “quick and devastating” takedown of these public health experts for advocating an alternative to lockdowns. The drafters, eminent scholars from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, were summarily branded as ‘fringe’.

Then, when well-respected and internationally published epidemiologists and cardiologists (such as Dr Peter McCullough and Dr Pierre Kory) put forward early treatment protocols, their reputations were smeared, their social media posts fact-checked and removed from social platforms. Together with 56 other medical professionals with extensive experience in treating Covid-19 outpatients, Dr Peter McCullough published an early treatment protocol in December 2020. Smear campaigns ensued, discouraging preventive therapy and early treatment. This played well into the hands of Big Pharma. Emergency use authorisation for their new gene-based therapeutics (the Covid-19 vaccines) would not have been granted if it was acknowledged that safe and effective treatment was otherwise available. Instead, the Covid-19 vaccines have been rolled out for the elderly, vulnerable, healthy and young alike, without taking into consideration the differential in terms of risks and benefits. It was argued that taking the vaccine (a leaky vaccine, which neither prevents infection nor spread) was a public good, in the interest of the common good. In addition, to secure access to the jabs, South Africa – as with other countries around the world – was required to exempt vaccine manufacturers from liability and potential lawsuits in the case of adverse effects relating to the vaccines. Those suffering from adverse effects instead need to apply to a public-funded compensation scheme.

Once the narrative was controlled, ethically questionable ‘nudge’ units, comprising behavioural psychologists, were employed by some governments to embed sufficient fear in the public to direct their responses to the ‘acceptable narrative’. A possible consequence of which has been Covid-19 Anxiety Syndrome, where people have heightened fear for Covid-19, disproportionate to the reality of the threat.

The pushing of a single narrative – as if it is based on perfect knowledge – and the covert manipulation of people’s behaviour are more consistent with the features of a totalitarian regime than of a pluralistic democracy. In the years ahead, the onus will be on us to unravel which bodies, such as Big Pharma, mainstream media, governments and global public health entities, pushed these single narratives, why and at what cost. In the form of Lysenkoism, the cost may have been more than the loss in ideas, viable approaches and a shrinking of liberties and democratic space, but also the unnecessary loss of livelihoods and lives.

  • Nicola de Jager, Associate Professor: Department of Political Science, Stellenbosch University

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