rock star science

Yesterday, I attended a high table dinner for Muse College, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen. CUHK-SZ is located in Longgang, next to the Shenzhen Moscow State University-Beijing Institute of Technology University (Shenzhen MIS-BIT) and the Longgang sports stadium, which was built for the 2011 Universiade. Both universities were established after the Universiade through national and international initiatives. The first class at CUHK-SZ entered in 2016, while the first class at Shenzhen MIS-BIT entered in 2017. These collaborations indicate Shenzhen’s commitment to formalizing science and technology innovation in the city. Indeed, these investments have been of a piece with the renewal of Huaqiangbei, where upscale malls have replaced the former factory buildings which housed low-cost storefronts, offices, and workshops on the area’s main strip.

Head of the Shanghai Medical Treatment Expert Group, Zhang Wenhong (张文宏) was the keynote speaker at the high table banquet, which also included a performance by the renowned Cantonese opera singer, Zhuo Peili (桌佩丽). Zhang Wenhong became nationally famous for his role in understanding and controlling COVID-19 in China. Accordingly he has become something of a science rock star, especially in venues like CUHK-SZ, where teachers and students lined up to have their picture taken with him.

Zhang’s talk focused on how COVID-19 treatment involves memory and the future.

On the one hand, he said, recent memories of SARS and H1N1 lulled us into a false sense of security about combating COVID-19. In particular, we relied on “herd immunity” to control those earlier diseases. However, in the face of the scale and scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, just ignoring the spread of the disease and treating patients isn’t enough. According to Zhang, less than 10,000 people were infected with SARS, while less than 1,000 died worldwide. In contrast, to date over 141 million people have been infected with COVID-19 and over 3 million have died worldwide. In the face of these statistics, Zhang emphasized, our living memories of infectious disease are (at best) misleading us and (at worst) preventing us from taking cooperative action at a global scale.

On the other hand, the pandemic is reshaping the future. Before COVID-19, we were telling infectious disease stories about about limited populations. Today, we’re trying to tell stories about global infections, occurring in very different social contexts. This means that worldwide, COVID-19 narratives are not only shaping local treatment strategies, but also how we are imagining the global future. This is especially true for young people who expected international lives and are now navigating shut downs, lock downs, and delayed educations.

Zhang’s talk was well received. My friends commented that he not only made important points and had access to reliable information about the situation, but also that he saw clearly the ramifications of the pandemic. They agreed that even if we still don’t know exactly how the pandemic will play out, nevertheless lived experiences of COVID-19 are reshaping our memories of past events and our future aspirations.

Personally, I was struck by the fact that the need for scientific guidance was so accepted as to be unmentioned. For the audience that night, Zhang Wenhong embodied the ideal intellectual; he had deep medical training, was at the frontline of the pandemic, and had a compassionate perspective on the situation. Today, I’m thinking that for many in the audience, Zhang Wenhong represented a way forward despite current uncertainties. Students, their teachers and their parents agreed: compassionate and socially responsible intellectuals can help chart a healthy and prosperous future. Suddenly and abruptly I found myself in China circa 500 bce, when Confucius asserted, “The world is my responsibility.”

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