In Depth

Covid Pandemic: Weaponisation of science, and the state’s manifestation of power

Representative Image.

With states using science and technology in the matters of so-called national security, the current COVID pandemic brings to light how the field has been used as a tool for domination. 

In 1962, John F. Kennedy, the then President of the United States of America, made a speech in Rice University. In the speech, Kennedy declared, with utmost urgency, his intentions of putting the first man on moon.

Kennedy’s determination to conquer the moon was in response to the popular belief that the Soviet Union dominated the space race with its satellite, Sputnik, which was already orbiting in outer space.

In the speech, Kennedy said, “there is no strife, no prejudice, no national conflict in outer space as yet,” however the whole mission was informed by strife, prejudice and national conflict on Earth.

The Rice speech, as it is called, was an important event, as for the first time the leader of a nation was proclaiming science as a national goal, and probably, as an upgrade in conventional politics.

The speech materialised into the Apollo mission and with that, began an era where science became a reason of state, alongside the existing reason of national security. The moon expedition and the enthusiasm among the general public showed that a base had been made for the use of science as a means of state and probably for populist political mobilization.

Six decades after the speech, science is indeed being used as a means of political mobilisation. While president Trump of the United States made optimistic and equally careless claims about the formulation of a vaccine against the COVID causing virus before the US presidential elections, the ruling party in India has involved the vaccine in its election manifesto.

India’s Union Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharam, had earlier announced the ruling party’s UP election manifesto. The highlight, however, was the promise of a free anti-COVID vaccine to “every person in Bihar”.

However, how they plan to do so was not made clear. The vaccine, a scientific feat, yet to be developed, is already being put to use.

With a total of 7.71> million cases, out of which 4,61,475 are in Uttar Pradesh, India stands at number 2 among the World COVID case ranking.

When India went into a lockdown earlier in March due to the COVID outbreak, thousands of migrant labourers took harrowing journeys on foot from Delhi to reach their villages in Bihar.

Many labourers making these journeys lost their life before they could make it home.

India has also been testing less vigorously, a strategy that has been hailed as one of the key steps to stop the transmission of the COVID causing coronavirus.

Despite such a record in dealing with the ongoing pandemic, now, with the date for the Legislative Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh nearing, the ruling party is leveraging the anxieties of the general public to further its electoral agenda.

The use of science to ensue state gains is not a new phenomenon. India’s Nuclear Science sector is a peculiar case. It demonstrates the relationship between science and politics in contemporary India.

Before India got its independence from the British rule in 1947, the nationalist scientific elite had gathered around influential political leaders such as Jawahar Lal Nehru. After independence, these coalitions influenced independent India’s science policies.

Nuclear science benefited the most from this coalition. Nuclear Research institutions, were set up. The state supported these institutions by ways of sponsorships, funds and political legitimacy.

With such autonomy and support from the state, the Indian scientist were able to forge the use of the nuclear sciences by both, the civilians, which included the scientific community, as well as by the army. They were able to bring the nuclear sciences into common discourses so much so that today the common public do not hesitate to propagate nuclear attacks on rival counties.

The orientation of the Indian society and the Government was shifted away from a faith in disarmament and peace, and towards a policy of internal strength.

Today, the increasing trend of militarism worldwide depends on the advances in science and technology to develop weapons; nuclear, biological and otherwise. This trade between science and the state is being weaponised by strong nations and manifests as power.

When coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, with it emerged the conspiracy theories of a biological war by China.

Whether that is the case or not, this reveals the capacity of states to put science to the use of establishing power and superiority over other nations.

If scientists are able to develop a vaccine anytime around the later part of the next year, that would be a triumph, but definitely not the end of the road. The manufacturing, upscaling and the distribution will be decided by the political leaders of the world. The access to the vaccine will be determined by the political order of the time and mere political promises won’t suffice to mitigate the public health crisis.


Misbah Haqani is an independent researcher interested in understanding the social determinants of health and the socio-political aspects surrounding healthcare in Kashmir. 


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