Science and Ideology

“Everything is ideology,” is a pithy sentence usually associated with Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. In a Marxian sense, ideology is what is called the superstructure of society (i.e. culture, religion, art and politics); ideology consists of the ideas that sustain, and are used to justify, the ruling class’s power in particular. In our common understanding, there seem to be certain things that are outside the realm of ideology. For many in a post-Enlightenment world, science has taken this position, with a nearly dogmatic, idealised objectivity – science is something beyond the petty ideologies that occupy most of our minds and divide us in political categories. You can easily see this play out in the oft repeated slogan ‘believe the science’ with little understanding of what that really actually means. Richard Lewontin and Richard Levins, rejected the idea that science was beyond ideology and somehow beyond, and outside of, society. To them, it was pretty clear that science was a social institution. Science as the institution, the method, as well as its facts and theories, are all influenced by society, ideology and social context. Whereas scientists, particularly the more liberal minded ones, might be willing to admit to the social influence on scientific institutions and academia, they are less keen on acknowledging the social and political influence on scientific facts, theories, methodologies and interpretations.

In The Dialectical Biologist Richards Lewontin and Levins write: “but nothing evokes as much hostility among intellectuals as the suggestion that social forces influence or even dictate either the scientific method or the facts and theories of science. The Cartesian social analysis of science, like the Cartesian analysis in science, alienates science from society, making scientific fact and method “objective” and beyond social influence. Our view is different. We believe that science, in all its senses, is a social process that both causes and is caused by social organization. To do science is to be a social actor engaged, whether one likes it or not, in political activity. The denial of the interpenetration of the scientific and the social is itself a political act, giving support to social structures that hide behind scientific objectivity to perpetuate dependency, exploitation, racism, elitism, colonialism.” 

They go on to say that while “of course the speed of light is the same under socialism and capitalism…whether the cause of tuberculosis is said to be a bacillus or the capitalist exploitation of workers, whether the death rate from cancer is best reduced by studying oncogenes or by seizing control of factories — these questions can be decided objectively only within the framework of certain sociopolitical assumptions.” This challenges us to avoid divorcing science from its social context in a knee-jerk reaction, but to actively examine it, including the research into disease. On this point, Richard Lewontin, in his Massey Lectures on Biology as Ideology, suggests that we at times turn agents of disease into a fetish, foregoing a true analysis of causes which tend to be sociopolitical and based on people’s material conditions. Additionally, the fetishisation of objectivity prevents scientists from examining sociopolitical aspects, influences and implications of their research out of a kind of – perhaps unconscious – fear of being accused of peddling mere ideology when pointing them out. Moreover, it opens the door to unethical and objectively harmful uses of science (e.g. the atomic bomb). This is a tragic, albeit not unsurprising, consequence of bourgeois science.

Science ought to be engaged with not as the religion of scientism, nor should it be responded to with antiscience sentiments that both segments of the right and left fall prey to. Richard Levins talked about the ‘dual nature of science‘ with its very real and material contributions to humanity on one hand, and the reproduction of class relations and the social and political structures of our society on the other. This ought to allow us to place the progression of science in its proper historical context and within its historical trajectory.

Thus, while the response to the weaknesses of bourgeois science should not involve antiscience sentiments, it is important for scientists and the public alike to remember that however much we might buy into the cult of objectivity, science – as a social institution, done by social creatures – can never be completely divorced from the ideological structure of society and the underlying labour and class relations that colour much of our lives. A materialist analysis of science – integrating a holistic, dialectical view – might help us along.


I think there is no better example of where the shying away of the ideological and the sociopolitical falls short than the current global pandemic response. A toxic mixture of scientific advise that by the simple nature of the institutions ought to fall within the ideologically acceptable (e.g. not paying people to stay at home but hammering on reopening even when it is not epidemiologically correct to do so), a lack of trust from the people in government and scientific institutions that often feel far away and have very obviously failed them, the commoditisation of science and pharmaceuticals and the casualisation of scientists, means that we have continually exacerbated and prolonged the global Covid-19 pandemic. Ed Yong recently wrote about how public health as an endeavour in the West, has contributed to its own downfall by losing its radical starting point: “that some people were more susceptible to disease because of social problems”. But this doesn’t mean it has to end there.

Nothing about the way the pandemic has been handled in most Global North countries was inevitable. Science and medicine can be revolutionary, which is something the tiny, proud Caribbean island of Cuba shows. In Cuba, science, medicine and education have long been pillars of its revolutionary society, with a deep belief that these endeavours can be used in service of the people. To quote Che Guevara: Today one finally has the right and even the duty to be, above all things, a revolutionary doctor, that is to say a man who utilizes the technical knowledge of his profession in the service of the revolution and the people. In a similar vein, Fidel Castro once said in a speech that “The tens of thousands of scientists and doctors in our country have been educated in the philosophy of saving lives. It would be totally contradictory to their formation to ask a scientist or a doctor to work producing substances, bacteria or viruses capable of causing the death of other human beings…Doctors and not bombs.” And so, a (medical) science that is for the people, includes involving the people. This means, concretely, a system of public health that is directly involved in the community, primary care that is a part of every community and that everybody has access to, that means open access science, that means internationalism and solidarity and not a mentality of every man for himself, it means rejecting scientific knowledge being used for ill, democratising science, reckoning with modern science’s eugenic, bourgeois origins and truly following the science – messiness and all. It is possible. It is possible to tackle the pandemic with vaccines that are not, in the words of the Cuban Finlay Institute’s Director General “a commodity to sell to the governments and make big profits; the collateral effect was that the populations were partially protected from the virus.” It is possible to ultimately create a humane system where science and medicine have a strong revolutionary potential to make us, in turn, more human again; a system where illness is taken seriously, where workers are protected, where racialised and colonised people can have faith that they are cared for and the disabled are not simply discarded with semi-scientific, and often eugenic, ideological justification.

It is possible to ultimately create a humane system where science and medicine have a strong revolutionary potential to make us, in turn, more human again; a system where illness is being taken seriously, where workers are protected, where racialised and colonised people can have faith that they are cared for, and the disabled are not simply discarded with semi-scientific, and often eugenic, ideological justification.

In Socialism and Man in Cuba, Che Guevara states that a true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love. By acklowedging science’s dual nature, the ideological underpinnings of bourgeois science and its revolutionary potential when truly in the service of the people, we can change both the individual and our communities. We can, and must, be guided by love for the people as much as we love science. It is time for a science by the people, for the people. Solidarity forever.


Tendency towards life

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May the angels lead you into paradise;
may the martyrs receive you at your coming
and lead you to the holy city Jerusalem.
May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus,
once poor, may you have eternal rest.

November is traditionally a month Catholics dedicate to the holy souls in Purgatory. It’s a time to contemplate and pray for the dead. As the days shorten, the nights get a little bit darker as we inch towards the darkness’ apex at the solstice, it seems particularly natural to contemplate death and endings. Memento mori – remember you will die. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

When discussing death and endings, it is impossible not to think about the pandemic – still omnipresent, however much many of us try to pretend it isn’t – and all the people it has claimed and continues to claim. The families who have to miss loved-ones. The elders who were sacrificed on the altar of mammon. We might reflect, too, on those that have lost their lives this year in wars and aggression, from Palestine to Afghanistan, the migrants who are dying in Fortress Europe, the homeless and those marginalised who are suffering to protect capital. Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.

Our ancestors’ bones, buried in the land, are a source of new life. Babies are born. We love and care for each other and our elders. We grieve losses together. We fight for justice together. We remember our history and traditions together. We love the land. And the olive harvest continues regardless.


It is too easy to retreat into doomerism. It is too easy to despair and become a nihilist. It isn’t strange that many, feeling the weight of injustice and a sense of impending climate doom, resort to giving up. But life has a tendency to renew itself. Hope can be revolutionary. James Baldwin once said “I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So, I am forced to be an optimist. I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive.” Our ancestors’ bones, buried in the land, are a source of new life. Babies are born. We love and care for each other and our elders. We grieve losses together. We fight for justice together. We remember our history and traditions together. We love the land. And the olive harvest continues regardless. Hope can be renewed in the morning. I think of the words of Mahmoud Darwish, always with a smile:

We have on this earth what makes life worth living:
April’s hesitation,
the aroma of bread at dawn,
a woman’s point of view about men,
the works of Aeschylus,

the beginning of love,
grass on a stone,
mothers living on a flute’s sigh
and the invaders’ fear of memories.

November is the month of the dead – our communal memento mori. But at the end of this November is Advent’s start, where we await the coming of the Light. And we remember that there is always hope. And that there is nothing more human than our tendency towards life. Struggle on, comrades. Struggle on.

On Medical Research.

Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing more than medicine on a large scale. Those are the words of German physician, and father of social medicine, Rudolf Virchow. Even now, all this time later, his words still resonate. Particularly during the pandemic where stark differences between groups seem to grow ever more obvious – whether it is within countries or between countries and regions. How can we reify the importance of social environment and context in a hyper-biomedical world?

Applying the lens of social medicine seems most obvious and intuitive in infectious diseases and public health. As mentioned before, the pandemic has placed a spotlight on how interconnected we really are. Talk of community transmission, public health and safety measures such as social distancing and masking, but also an increased public spotlight on how infectious diseases spread through marginalised communities and people working low income jobs are all prime examples of how medicine functions as a social science. It has shown us that our communities are more lattice than silo; more multigenerational than age-segregated. But the framework of addressing social causes and their impact on disease can, and should, reach farther – as far as into our world of fundamental and particularly translational science.

I have lamented the blinders that are pervasive in (bio)medical research before. Personally, my interest lies in a type of research called ‘translational research’ which aims to bridge the gap between basic research – that is research that is focused mostly on increasing knowledge about a natural phenomenon – and clinical research. When you’re going to be the bridge between the clinic and the bench, it is imperative that you have a good sense of the community even though that might be a little less intuitive than the connection one has to the bench. Dementia in general, and Alzheimer’s disease in particular, is a good case study for where it is necessary for those at the bench to be in tune with what is happening in the clinic and by extension the community. Alzheimer’s disease is a disease with many social determinants including education, access to health care and social isolation. Research in the United States suggests that African Americans and Hispanic Americans have higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease than their white counterparts, yet have a harder time getting a diagnosis. UK based estimates mimic the delay in getting an Alzheimer’s diagnosis in BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) communities. Of course, when factoring in these social and ethnic differences in disease, it is imperative that we do not primarily default to biological determinism and instead take these together in a way that is already common in the social sciences, humanities and public health: it is complex and combines a lower socio-economic status, oppression and structural inequalities with cultural practices and the environment. The reality is that if we are going to translate bench science to the clinic, we need to factor in all of the community-based determinants for health outcomes and give these serious consideration.

In my view, integrating the ‘social’ into social medicine (and social medical research) is two fold: on the one hand the traditional approach of factoring in social determinants of health, on the other being in constant dialogue with the communities most affected by our research. Of course there are ways to keep the scientists at the bench engaged with the clinic and the raison d’être of their medical research. Alzheimer’s Society, a UK based charity that funds research into dementia and aims to improve quality of life for those suffering from dementia and their carers, funds projects and regularly allows volunteers to meet with the researchers to discuss the work. Community engagement is not solely science communication, but genuine interest and cooperation with the people our research most affects.

I think the adage ‘people’s health in people’s hands’, a slogan from the People’s Health Movement, is relevant to translational science as well. If translating science from the bench to the bedside is something we care about, we have to engage with the communities we are supposed to be working to help. That means we have to take a holistic approach; one that takes the social science nature of medicine – lab or clinic – into consideration, and one that is deeply rooted in the community. This will not only make our research more accurate and grounded in on-the-ground reality but will also empower people to be active agents in treatment and research into diseases that affect them and their loved ones. It will mean that people can truly take their health into their own hands.

If translating science from the bench to the bedside is something we care about, we have to engage with the communities we are supposed to be working to help. That means we have to take a holistic approach; one that takes the social science nature of medicine – lab or clinic – into consideration, and one that is deeply rooted in the community.

The Argentine-Cuban revolutionary and doctor Ernesto “Che” Guevara, in an address to fellow doctors, pointed out that it’s important not to approach people and communities from a space of charity, but with a sense of solidarity. He says: “We should not go to the people and say, ‘Here we are. We come to give you the charity of our presence, to teach you our science, to show you your errors, your lack of culture, your ignorance of elementary things.’ We should go instead with an inquiring mind and a humble spirit to learn at that great source of wisdom that is the people”.
I think this is not just an important mindset for the doctors working in the clinic, and not just in factoring in the social determinants of health, but certainly also for us trying to make a difference through translational medical research. An inquiring mind and a humble spirit truly go a long way.

Trying to find some money, then you die.

Photo by John Guccione on

Play The Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony in a random room, and soon follows a choir of voices belting the Britpop classic’s lyrics.

Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life.

Trying to make ends meet, trying to find some money then you die.

Its lyrics are enduring, perhaps because of a visceral relatability: it is certainly true that when you strip our lives within capitalism to its bare bones, it is mostly about trying to make ends meet, trying to make some money – one might even say we’re slaves to money – and then eventually, like everything else, we die. Perhaps no time has this been more literal than during this year’s Covid-19 pandemic, where hundreds of thousands of people have been laid off or furloughed, and many more jobs are hanging in the balance. And unfortunately, many people have also died because of the interlinked nature of the ‘economy’ and our public health.

A common refrain during the pandemic, amongst a smorgasbord of liberal and right-wing pundits and politicians alike, has been that we cannot let the economy suffer at the expense of tackling the pandemic. Some people, both economists, fringe public health experts and laypeople alike, have suggested that the elderly and those with underlying health conditions should sacrifice themselves – either by accepting possible death or by self-isolating indefinitely – as ‘the economy’ is rescued and the virus is allowed to slowly and insidiously ripple through society. Like sacrificial lambs at the altar of Mammon – the God of money. The consequences of this worship of ‘the economy’ at the expense of everything else – including our humanity – has made it difficult for people who are willing to self-isolate or stay at home as much as possible to do so, if consequently they might lose their jobs or their ability to feed their families. In addition, as mentioned on this blog before, the victims of this virus are often working-class and minoritised populations (and particularly where these two identities converge), as many work in essential professions and live in multigenerational households. Students are forced back to university, likely to provide the marketised institutions with a steady stream of tuition fees, and the university residence hall landlords with tenants’ rent, whilst lecturers are losing their already precarious jobs; workers who were furloughed are forced back to work; workers lose their jobs; healthcare workers are overworked and terrified of spreading the disease to their loved ones or their patients; those with chronic illnesses and disabilities and the elderly are isolated and treated like burdens. Twas ever thus.


The Western Church has as of the day of writing (29 November) entered into a new liturgical year which is also the First Sunday of Advent, the official start of the Christmas season. The season’s first Gospel reading starts with Jesus’s words to His disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Advent is the season where we’re watchful for the Light of the World to come down to Earth, for the Word to become Flesh, for Hope to be restored. Winter, in its gloom and darkness, its withering away of leaves and flowers, makes us, I think, long for something more. For human contact, for something bigger, for something to thaw within and between us. In a similar way, this year seems to have been gloomy and dark for many of us. As of now, the much quoted adage that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism still mostly rings true. Especially as for many of us, this year indeed felt like the end of the world. We’re being watchful, waiting patiently for Mammon to be replaced with all that is good; something communal; something human; something True.

But there is more in it for us than being slaves to money until we die, and there is more than just being watchful and awaiting. There are times when we are to take action. Kropotkin, in Mutual Aid, wrote that “The mutual-aid tendency in man has so remote an origin, and is so deeply interwoven with all the past evolution of the human race, that it has been maintained by mankind up to the present time, notwithstanding all vicissitudes of history.”. Indeed, mutual aid and solidarity has found a way to grow and blossom through the arctic tundra that has been this year. Genuine solidarity and mutual aid, meeting people’s material needs and improving their conditions not in a top-down way but mutually, horizontally, is a radical alternative to the worship of the economy at the expense of human beings whose labour brings value to capital. In moments like this it is perhaps possible to envision a future beyond the current economic system. To quote Pope Francis in his timely encyclical Fratelli Tutti:

Once this health crisis passes, our worst response would be to plunge even more deeply into feverish consumerism and new forms of egotistic self-preservation. God willing, after all this, we will think no longer in terms of “them” and “those”, but only “us”. If only this may prove not to be just another tragedy of history from which we learned nothing. If only we might keep in mind all those elderly persons who died for lack of respirators, partly as a result of the dismantling, year after year, of healthcare systems. If only this immense sorrow may not prove useless, but enable us to take a step forward towards a new style of life. If only we might rediscover once for all that we need one another, and that in this way our human family can experience a rebirth, with all its faces, all its hands and all its voices, beyond the walls that we have erected.


It would be incumbent upon the ruling classes to remember that without human beings there is no such thing as an economy. But it is equally incumbent upon us not to let the current political-economic system – the current neoliberal order – steal our imagination. Even amongst the drudgery of life, the tundra of this Year of the Pandemic, and the desperate attempt to make ends meet, there has been an incredible impulse towards solidarity. In the depths of winter we found genuine care for one another and a sense of understanding that our futures are indeed inextricably tied together. It is only through that work, the work that starts on the ground and within our communities, that we can start to imagine a better future. It is true that we get to be watchful and that we ought to look forward patiently towards the Light, but it is equally true that we are called towards action and care for each other in the material world. This life might be a bitter sweet symphony, but when in our own lives and within our own community we refuse to let Mammon reign, refuse to deify the economy, and start building towards a world thatprovides land, housing and work for all’, we move away from “capitalist realism” and towards a world where every human being’s life is truly inherently valuable rather than measured against productivity and the amount of use it has for Capital. That seems like a truly glorious start to this Christmas season.

A Covid-vaccine mustn’t be hoarded.

Photo by Retha Ferguson on

On July 20, researchers at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute released preliminary Phase I data on the immune response of their vaccine candidate, ChAdOx1 nCoV-19, in The Lancet. These findings are helpful and bring a glimmer of hope that perhaps a vaccine could be found to prevent (severe) COVID-19, caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. On the same day the World Health Organisation (WHO), cautioned the world that indigenous peoples in the Americas, the current epicentre of the pandemic, are particularly vulnerable to the virus and its severe ramifications. This only strengthens the urgency with which we must avoid hoarding a potential vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 away from the most vulnerable in the world.

As we have seen over the last months, this virus and the disease it causes does not hit every one of us equally. The epidemic’s epicentre has shifted from China to Europe, and is now currently in the Americas. What we have seen is that many vulnerable people have borne the brunt of the pandemic, with the burden of mortality mainly shouldered by minoritised and racialised communities in Europe and the United States and key workers in general (many minoritised and racialised communities are also more likely to be frontline workers), as well as those with lower socio-economic backgrounds. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Dr Tedros, the Director General of the WHO, has recently mentioned how indigenous communities in the Americas are currently most at risk of suffering the effects of the Covid surges throughout the continent. Presently, the spike in SAR-CoV-2 infections in recently contacted indigenous peoples in the Amazon have raised alarm. Furthermore, although some countries with weaker health systems have seemingly been able to relatively contain the virus, it has nonetheless been a terrible strain, especially in countries that are also still dealing other communicable disease outbreaks such as a recent Ebola and measles outbreak.

Recently, the United States bought up most of the world’s supply of Gilead’s remdesivir which, other than the drug dexamethasone, is currently the only hopeful candidate treatment for COVID-19. Even though there is as of now limited evidence for remdesivir, and the cheap drug dexamethasone at time of writing seems more promising, the move by the United States sets a worrying precedent.

As I have stated so many times on this blog, health is a human right. To ensure accessibility and equity in healthcare we have to act accordingly. When countries with relatively strong healthcare systems and strong scientific infrastructure to research and produce vaccines and medicines to prevent or treat COVID-19 end up distributing, or even hoarding, these vaccines and treatments for their own populations, there is a strong possibility that countries with disadvantages, many incurred because of a history of colonialism and extractive capitalist exploitation, will end up holding the metaphorical baby. Within these countries the poorest and those made most vulnerable (including indigenous peoples) will suffer the most. Beyond vaccine hoarding, the selling of vaccines or treatments for profit by pharmaceutical companies will also disadvantage the world’s poorest and those in (mainly) Global South countries. Moreover, there are some concerns that neocolonial approaches to vaccine and medicine testing will end up using the African continent as testing ground.

Dr Tedros has reiterated in the daily briefing that a potential vaccine should be a public good. It must be continually emphasised that access to healthcare is a basic human right. Many countries have pre-existing issues with being able to reach their most vulnerable communities and provide them with appropriate healthcare, and while the pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of all of our health systems, some countries and some people will be more disadvantaged than others. It is imperative that countries with more advanced health systems do not return to an ‘each man for himself’ mentality, but act in the spirit of solidarity.

A post-Covid world could – indeed should – be one where healthcare is accessible, health is treated as a human right, and our approach to global and public health is one of internationalism and solidarity.

A vaccine or treatment must be freely accessible to all people. The importance of healthcare as a human right must underpin every step our governments take moving forward. The pandemic has shown us that in an increasingly connected world, our health systems are really only as strong as the weakest link. In a neoliberal capitalist world it is progressively common to see everything, including our human rights, through the lens of profit margins and winners and losers. Austerity, the privatisation of healthcare, and growing inequality have direct impact on global and public health. We cannot, then, in good conscience apply the ‘logic’ of the market to a global pandemic where many vulnerable people are needlessly losing their lives and suffering. A post-Covid world could – indeed should – be one where healthcare is accessible, health is treated as a human right, and our approach to global and public health is one of internationalism and solidarity. What better way to laud in the new world than to use these principles as the way out of the pandemic? What better way to increase equality, health access and diminish the possible catastrophic effects of a next pandemic than to work together to make vaccines and treatments freely accessible? It is not just a nice thought; I would go as far as to say that this is our moral duty. The time for complacency is over and the time for solidarity is now.

Quarantine Foodies.

person holding sliced vegetable
Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on

I, myself, am a self-professed foodie. Unsurprisingly, the lockdown/quarantine life has been the perfect time for me to fulfil my New Year’s resolution and spend more time cooking and baking, experimenting with new recipes, and sharing the fruits of my labour with my neighbours. It seems that I am far from the only person who has used these uncertain times to refine their cooking and baking skills. Many people have been sharing their new, delicious (and more or less successful) creations on their social media, though the endless stream of sourdough breads found on timeliness and explore pages has drawn ire from some people as well. Cooking and eating is far from just nourishment to our species, which is a rarity in the animal kingdom. So why is it exactly that humans have developed such a foodie culture?

During this time of quarantine I, too, have started creating my own sourdough starter. Her name is Prof Marie Curyeast.

Chimpanzees and gorillas have a rather monotonous diet compared to us, even though they are our closest living relatives. Drs Karina Fonseca-Azevedo and Suzanna Herculano-Houzel, Brazilian neuroscientists, have researched the possible reasons we, as humans, have such large brains compared to our other primate cousins. Their research suggests that perhaps our large brains compared to both our bodies and our primate cousins’, might be a result of having learnt how to use fire to cook. As brains are energy intensive organs, many raw-food-eating primates have to spend more of their time eating than humans do. Moreover, a primate living off of raw food with a brain of our size would probably spend most of their waking hours eating. Perhaps, then, cooking, which causes us to take up many more calories in one go than consuming solely raw foods would, has been an evolutionary trade-off making our bodies smaller, our brains larger, and our feeding time more special.

Dr Julie Mennella, amongst others, has done research on how children develop preference for certain foods. Her research suggests that children innately have a preference for sweet things and a dislike for bitter things, as a result of our evolutionary history. Furthermore, her research suggests that we learn about our food preferences through exposure in utero and, for breastfed babies, through breastmilk. Though later on babies on solid food can learn to like foods they initially dislike through repeated exposure. In the Season 2 episode of Babies on senses, Dr Mennella rightly points out that for human beings, ‘food is much more than a source of nutrients or a source of calories. It gives us pleasure.’

So perhaps our culinary endeavours during this unsure time are just ways for us to grasp at something seemingly fundamental to our humanity – where we can see cooking and baking as a form of community, connectedness and comfort, even in darkness and uncertainty.

Evolutionarily there might be a reason we have started to cook more, and science gives us somewhat of a perspective of why we have developed such a foodie culture as a species. There is so much more food means to us on a personal, individual or cultural level than just explained by evolution. The science suggests us that we are already connected and involved in our family’s or culture’s food structure from when we are very little, our tastes ever evolving with the wider scope of exposure to different foods. Cooking can tie us to our family histories, can make us feel connected to those that have gone before us. We can find a kind of grounding and deep humanness in plunging your hands into dough or salad. Food is a way in which we show love and care, through which we maintain social connections with our friends and families. Our recipes are what we pass down to the children in our lives. So perhaps our culinary endeavours during this unsure time are just ways for us to grasp at something seemingly fundamental to our humanity – where we can see cooking and baking as a form of community, connectedness and comfort, even in darkness and uncertainty. The real test will be if we keep up our cravings for nostalgia, comfort and connectedness now lockdowns are easing and people are trying to find a new sense of normality in abnormal times. But one truth remains: food, and subsequently foodie culture, is integral to human nature, in good times and in bad!

The shakiness of our foundations.

mona lisa with face mask
Photo by cottonbro on

Karl Marx wrote that ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle’. To many people the idea of class struggle seems archaic and belonging firmly to the 20th century. An equally 20th century idea is that of living through a deadly pandemic – a scenario that has for most of us only been conveyed through history books, and a scenario in which we have collectively been thrust by the once-in-a-century unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. This current pandemic is exposing the problems within our current economic and social systems, and most importantly exposes the fragility of the human right to health. It turns out that the emperor is naked.

Inequalities in access to healthcare between Global North and Global South countries have, rightfully, long been the focus of conversation surrounding global health. Soon after the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), the Director General, Dr Tedros, pointed out that this virus could be most lethal and dangerous for countries with weaker health systems, largely (though not uniquely) corresponding to the Global South. Beyond ‘developing’ and conflict-heavy countries with weaker health systems, the current pandemic has exposed the health inequalities that exist within the Global North as well. In many Global North countries, in the years after the crashing down of the neoliberal order, austerity (to varying degrees) has been the go-to policy with public sector jobs being cut, and many people being thrust into unemployment and even poverty. This has had many consequences on health (both mental and physical) and has caused many of our countries to be woefully underprepared for something as catastrophic as a pandemic.

In recent weeks, governments have been calling on ‘essential workers’ and their skills. Many people across the world have been applauding their healthcare staff from their windows, balconies, living rooms and their palaces. We have, rightfully, been supporting ‘essential workers’, but what does that mean when essential workers have been devalued for years within our societies? When many of the people we have elected have been the ones to systematically cut funding for healthcare and the minimum wage is still not necessarily a living one. Many essential workers are in low-paying jobs, and additionally many essential jobs are traditionally feminised roles such as caring professions and domestic and service jobs. This exacerbates already exiting inequalities where they exist.

One of the most effective ways to slow the spread of infectious disease is through social – also called physical – distancing measures such as working from home, staying at home as much as possible, and avoiding close physical contact with other people not part of one’s household. However, for many people, many of whom economically disadvantaged and/or marginalised, this is nearly impossible, increasing the burden of mortality for this group. For many these people working from home is impossible because of the nature of their jobs, staying at home would mean a loss of income and livelihood, and there is a lack of paid sick leave and no (affordable) available childcare.

But beyond income inequality and depletion of resources for many of our health services and the low-wage nature of many essential jobs,, there are other vulnerable groups who will be suffering from increased difficulty in accessing healthcare during the pandemic. An example of this are the homeless who will not have the opportunity to social distance in the same way those with a home do, and who will often not be able to access quality healthcare as easily. Another example of a vulnerable group who might experience more difficulty are prisoners. Prisons are often not adept at containing major infectious disease epidemics. Thirdly, immigrants and refugees who are currently living in dire conditions in camps and settlements, particularly as these people will likely live in crowded places with poor sanitation and more difficulty to access healthcare. Beyond the elderly and those with underlying conditions, there are so many other people who might be particularly at risk in this time. Many of whom have been neglected by society, but all of whom are particularly at risk of having their human rights abused.

This global pandemic has shown us that, even though health is a human right, it is only as viable and attainable as the strength of our health systems and our care for the most vulnerable in society are.

Health is a human right as recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The decade of systematic cuts to our health systems and the secondary effects of austerity of thousands of people working in precarity and dealing with failing living standards have caused us to be woefully unprepared for a catastrophic event like this. This global pandemic has shown us that, even though health is a human right, it is only as viable and attainable as the strength of our health systems and our care for the most vulnerable in society are. In a world where the rich are able to self-isolate in mansions or second homes, and get access to tests even when others can’t, it seems difficult not to imagine there might be an aspect of class strife involved. It seems clear that we won’t be able to return to normal after the pandemic is over. The shaky foundations our systems are built on are not likely to survive in tact after this. It is then up to us to decide what’s next and to prepare for the next pandemic – which will come – in more comprehensive ways such as defending the right to healthcare, increasing its access, funding our health systems, implementing fairer labour policies, and redistributing wealth. We must applaud our essential workers, but we must also not forget them when this pandemic is over and they ask for more than just verbal appreciation. We, after all, are only as strong as the weakest link and at the moment the tower is crumbling.

On the (possible) return of community.

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The world has been under the spell of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) first discovered in Wuhan in 2019, which has quickly transformed from a semi-local epidemic to an unprecedented global pandemic. The disease’s epicentre has rapidly shifted from China to Europe, with Italy being the first domino to fall on the continent and many countries following swiftly. At this point Spain and France are (almost) in complete lockdown, and other European countries are contemplating the best course of action.

Public health officials have advised a measure called ‘social distancing‘ – perhaps better called physical distancing – where we are encouraged (or mandated) to avoid large gatherings, work from home, stay home as much as possible, and in many cases are closing schools and businesses altogether. Social distancing has as its main goal the reduction of the spread of disease, and ‘flattening the curve’. ‘Flattening the curve’ is, not unlike ‘social distancing’, a term that has got more attention in the media and popular culture (the graph has gone viral…pun not intended) lately. It refers to how the social distancing measures we take – in particular staying at home – can effectively spread out and slow down the number of infected cases so our health systems can still operate at capacity rather than overburdening the already fragile systems.

These unusual and drastic measures have in many cases, for example in Wuhan, Italy and Spain, brought out the best in people, with neighbours singing and chanting in unison, and neighbourhoods applauding their brave healthcare workers. At the same time, this pandemic has also brought out the internalised hyper-individualisation many Western societies have been experiencing for a long time. Many countries are experiencing empty shelves in supermarkets as people are hoarding products, and people across Europe and the United States are still not quite taking the pandemic seriously and are still going to bars, cafés and other events with a large number of people around.

Indeed, it seems like we are at a juncture where we can either increase our sense of community and solidarity and turn a new leaf, or we can get more entrenched in our internalising of the neoliberal lie that it is every man for himself. In a pandemic situation where community solidarity is essential to our mutual survival, it seems to me clear what the best course of action is. This means, perhaps ironically, to limit physical contact with other people as much as possible. This means checking in on our loved ones and the most vulnerable in our communities (that is: the elderly and those with underlying conditions). The current circumstances can, and in some cases already do, bring us together. In a world of constant distraction, it is perhaps an uncomfortable but nonetheless perfect time to return to the heart of what matters to us as human beings: love and community.

For many Christians around the world, the pandemic coincides with the Lenten season where we deny the flesh, contemplate our fleeting mortality, and try to give alms and care for those in our communities. Contemplation is an essential facet of the Lenten fast. However, beyond the religious, many people have a longing for something more; people long for the knowledge that there is more to life than can be found amidst the hectic and distracting nature of our societies and constant competition within our hyper capitalist contexts. In that moment, a pandemic that asks of us to isolate ourselves and return to our core out of community solidarity, might cruelly be the thing that can bring us back to ourselves and our communities. This is the best possible time to do some shopping for your infirm or elderly neighbours, to spend more time reading, with family, or alone in silence. Now is the time for self-reflection and for deciding how it is we can bring back our connection to our local communities and our central humanity.

Even though it might seem easier, or more pleasant, to be amongst each other in bars, pubs, shops, clubs and cafés instead of at home at a physical distance from our friends, there is little to despair. The act of isolating as much as possible at this time is an act of profound love and care for the least of these, for our neighbours, for those who are working in healthcare and are trying their best to save as many people’s lives as possible.

Within the Latin Church there is an antiphon that is chanted during Holy Thursday which proclaims: ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est – where charity and love are, there God is. Even though it might seem easier, or more pleasant, to be amongst each other in bars, pubs, shops, clubs and cafés instead of at home at a physical distance from our friends, there is little to despair. The act of isolating as much as possible at this time is an act of profound love and care for the least of these, for our neighbours, for those who are working in healthcare and are trying their best to save as many people’s lives as possible. Even if you are alone, remembering that where charity and love are, there God is, should bring a sense of profound peace, whatever ‘God’ means to you. So, please, stay at home whenever possible – binge your favourite Netflix shows, read, sit in silence, spend quality time with your loved ones if they live with you. But also check in on your elderly relatives and neighbours, help your chronically ill family, friends and neighbours out with groceries. Help and care for each other. Fight against the voice in your head that says it’s every man for himself. Stand in solidarity…from a sensible distance and without shaking hands!

There is power in a union.

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In September of this year, many university workers in The Netherlands started rising up against the abominable conditions many academics, non-academic university workers, and students alike face in academia. Many joined unions. In the United Kingdom, academics in November of this year again decided to picket and protested their precarious contracts, pay, and called for the protection of pensions within academia with many students picketing in solidarity. Indeed, it is clearer than ever that the majority of university staff, academic or otherwise, as well as its PhD students, are workers too and that love for the field does not preclude exploitation by bosses or dire working conditions. The fight between labour and capital within academia and wider society alike has escalated. Workers across the spectrum are uniting and unionising. In the words of Joe Hill (by way of Billy Bragg): there is power in a union.

The ivory tower – the hallowed halls of academia – are often seen through rose-tinted glasses. To many within it the work they do is indeed something they are passionate about and work often doesn’t feel like work at all. But the privilege of doing something you love, and the hallowed halls themselves, have been blinding many within and without from the decline in working conditions amongst its dwellers. Many academics are overworked. This state of continual working is, amongst other things, caused by scarcity of permanent academic positions, precarious contracts, the pressure to ‘publish or perish’, and also the internalisation of the neoliberal instinct to see each other as competition. We have normalised working in uncertain conditions on temporary contractsPhD students – who aren’t actually students but workers too – suffer from mental health issues, and there are ever slimming chances of getting a job within the hallowed halls that many of us hold dear. However much we might want to pretend that we are not the same as other workers in other sectors, the facts suggest otherwise.

Union membership in The Netherlands has been declining. The decline in union membership is a trend seen in countries like the United States and the United Kingdom as well. At the same time, workers across the spectrum have been seeing a decline in their working conditions, increase in precarious contracts, and stagnating wages. The decline in union membership, and in some cases their bargaining power, has not come out of nowhere but is the result of systematic policies. Many people, especially young people, may believe that unions are therefore an anachronism and have no relevance to the life of a modern worker. I believe nothing could be further from the truth. Organised labour gave us the five day workweek and many other gains. Both in academia and outside of it, the need for workers to organise against exploitative bosses and bad government policy is more pertinent than it has been in a very long time.

Both in academia and outside of it, the need for workers to organise against exploitative bosses and bad government policy is more pertinent than it has been in a very long time.

If we are going to organise against austerity, against the dismantling of our universities and gutting of public services, against precarious contracts – if we are going to organise against the exploitation by capital of our labour – we, within academia’s ‘hallowed halls’, are going to have to understand that we are not somehow better that other workers or the exception to the rule. The time to stand in solidarity with other workers who are striking, picketing, speaking up and fighting for better conditions (whether it’s health workersteachers, transport workers or others) has come. We can change the system not just for ourselves, but for each other with each other.

I believe that academia and its promises are worth saving. There is such passion for its reform within many of its workers, academic or otherwise, because we value education, research, and curiosity. In this moment of awakening and awareness of our conditions, and that of our fellow workers across different sectors, it is imperative that we stand in solidarity with each other and that we use our collective bargaining power to make life better for everyone involved. Trade unions have a great history of protecting, fighting, and gaining (for) our rights. They are not obsolete, but instead can help us progress. Solidarity between workers of all stripes is the only thing that will move us forward. There is power in a union, indeed.

On the decline of community.

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I have, for a while now, been lamenting the decline of community. And, as far as I am in tune with the Zeitgeist, I reckon I am far from the only on who has. Indeed, this endless roaming, this frantic search for community, has manifested itself in different ways – many of which unsavoury – in society in the past five years (or arguably even longer). The answer seems to be searched for amongst the segments of the internet that have effectively radicalised young men, increasing nationalism manifest in Brexit and Donald Trump, in the addictive scrolling on the internet and its social media influencers, and endless consumption of new technology, clothing, and other commodities. At times one is overcome with confusion and cynicism and ends up, like Pontius Pilate, exclaiming ‘what is truth?’. But this is, in my opinion, not the answer.

Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party once exclaimed that ‘there is no alternative’ to market (neoliberal) capitalism. Perhaps complimentarily, she also stated that ‘there is no such thing as society’. These two adages, although perhaps not publicly endorsed with as much fervour as in the past, seem to have percolated through society as a whole – even decades later. To me, these two famous slogans embody the decline of community better than anything else; if there is no such thing as society, and there is no alternative to neoliberalism, then surely this system is what we have to do with, faults and all.

Many people have been suffering from depression and loneliness. We have seen an increasing atomisation of society, and an alienation from others, ourselves and our work. A constant need to compete with oneself, each other for jobs and social capital, and the system as a whole, has caused us to see each other less as fellow travellers and more like potential enemies. I am far from the first person to suggest that neoliberalism has caused this epidemic of loneliness and mental illness we have been living through, and I think this is something more and more people are taking seriously. These are the symptoms of the system.

We have seen an increasing atomisation of society and an alienation from others, ourselves and our work. A constant need to compete with oneself, each other for jobs and (social) capital, and the system as a whole, has caused us to see each other less as fellow travellers and more like potential enemies.

When it comes to offering diagnoses, the system itself will convince us to consume more and malevolent individuals and groups might point in the direction of immigration, open borders, and women. The former might push us to see Youtubers, celebrities and other ‘influencers’ as our friends and our community, whereas the latter might make us find solace in online forums and controversial ‘thinkers’. The symptoms are identified, but the diagnosis is made incorrectly.

The era of strong trade unions, a connection to places of worship, community service, free and open third spaces such as libraries, and perhaps even a closer relationship with one’s neighbours might have given us a sense of community. Certainly in The Netherlands religion and political affiliation used to be central to one’s personal identity and sense of community. The era of neoliberalism has eroded the power of trade unions in many ways, and many previously public third spaces have been privatised. Indeed, after the financial crash many people made the diagnosis that the system was failing, however we are currently still living in its final convulsion. The symptoms are identified, the consequences are seen, but many people are scared to make the correct diagnosis.

So what do I think is the correct diagnosis? And more importantly, what do we do to cure it? As I have tried to express in this piece, I believe neoliberal capitalism is part of the reason why there is a sense of loss and a very human search for community. Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no alternative’ has been internalised so much that many would state that we just have to contend with the system, and that it is just ‘human nature’ to be competitive and atomised. I suggest that that is just a small part of the vastness that is ‘human nature’. In fact, we came so far as a species because of cooperation and altruism – is this not human nature too?

There is resistance in creating your own communities locally, and in serving these communities. This can be through volunteering, joining your trade unions, protesting, demonstrating, running for office or simply paying some attention to your neighbours and performing some acts of kindness to strangers. Will that overthrow the system? Probably not, but it shows not only that society exist, but also that there is indeed an alternative, and maybe, just maybe, it means that we find it within ourselves to band together and create that alternative. The system, after all, was not given to us by the Holy Spirit, but instead was created by humans. That means it can be changed by humans too. And looking at glimmers of hope in the world today, I think it will.