While the COVID-19 pandemic reaches its peak in many countries, the row over which policy tools to use seems to only get more vicious. Recently, Elon Musk stood up against the continuation of lockdowns and, much like anyone else who dared question the lockdown policy, got immediately lambasted by hordes of screeching boneheads incapable of discussion. A clear example of what happens nowadays when people challenge the dominant narrative. Not only does this trend of groupthink lead to erroneous decision-making, it is also a sure way to completely undermine the core values of democracy.
“The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him.”Leo Tolstoy
Whatever your position on any policy might be, you have to understand one thing. There is rarely a simple answer. Be it aimed at coronavirus or cabbage growing, any public policy is a game of pros and cons. Even on corona, there is very little scientific consensus on projected case numbers, length of containment measures, or the possibility of a next wave. Politicians would like to make you believe that there is only one simple answer with no downsides but in policy, and indeed in life, that is never the case. There is always a “but” and anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to sell you something. That is why a discussion of facts and an open mind are absolutely critical when designing policies as consequential as the ones we see today. So let’s go over some of the coronavirus facts that everyone ignores:
1. Most of Us Are Not Going to Die
The vast majority of people face almost no risk of dying from this disease. The most overlooked, or wilfully ignored, fact about COVID-19 is that it doesn’t affect everyone equally and, much like any other disease, the people most at risk are the elderly. Shocker. The data from New York, the epicentre of the disease in the United States, shows that the risk of death for people between the ages of 18 and 45 is 0.01%. That’s it. About 95% of coronavirus deaths in New York were people over 50 and 90% had underlying health conditions. Most of the reported cases have only mild symptoms and half of the people tested positive have no symptoms at all. And those are just the ones we manage to test.
The young and healthy are simply not facing the same issues as the elderly and unhealthy. And yet we are treating it as if we all faced the same risk. Politicians will always choose the solution with the best optics, pretending they are helping all and troubling none. However, we cannot use the same metrics on everyone. We are not really concerned with stopping the infection rate, especially when there is likely to be a second wave. We are concerned with protecting the elderly. And they are not going to be very well protected if the virus circulates in the country for years and the economy goes to hell. The differential impact on the population is something we have to keep in mind because so far, age is the single best risk predictor that should inform our policy.
2. The Models Suck
Every day, when watching the news we are faced with new models. New predictions of the projected deaths by chosen scientists, ignoring the ones that do not fit the current narrative. What usually doesn’t make the cut is the information that the models are extremely flimsy and rarely depict the actual reality. Don’t get me wrong, there are some brilliant, hard-working scientists developing and updating these models daily. However, they simply cannot obtain enough data. Even if they did, they would not be able to make an accurate prediction.
First of all, there isn’t enough tests so the updates on a number of cases mean, if we’re being generous, absolute squat. If we’re not being generous, they can be downright misleading. The Stanford antibody test in Santa Clara found, that the number of infected could be about 50 – 85 times larger than the number of official cases. Imagine what a discrepancy like this does to lockdown predictions. How do you account for the data from places like China, where scientific research falls into the sci-fi/fantasy genre or the shrine-lickers of Iran, when even our data is so inaccurate? One of the downsides of catastrophic models is that we cling to these hypothetical projections of the future out of fear and refuse to provide care for those who suffer from other conditions right now.
Second of all, even if you have all the data from one place, how do you weigh the variables in another? For example, how do you take infection data from Italy, where the average conversational distance is the width of a microbe and apply them in Sweden, where you only see your neighbour twice a year through a telescope? Each country has a different percentage of the elderly in the population, different population density, different customs, different healthcare. Taking all of this into account, how do we make precise, accurate models? Simple. We don’t. The models differ starkly from each other and from reality. There is too much heterogeneity in the world and we should accept that sometimes it is better to be broadly right rather than precisely wrong.
3. Flattening the Curve Means Flattening the Curve
Flattening the curve is one of those phrases that kept circulating the cesspool of headline news for weeks. The idea was, that we simply lock down, lower the infection rate, slow the spread across the population, and make sure the healthcare system doesn’t get overburdened. Good idea. However, that doesn’t take into account the recurring nature of the virus or the fact that keeping the workforce locked down for years actually has impact on the society. We cannot use a single metric to measure policy impacts and the world doesn’t stop with this pandemic. People will still have to return to normalcy and the sooner the better.
According to the head of UN’s World Food Program, we might now be facing ‘famines of biblical proportions’. Multiple nations in Africa are already seeing critical food shortages caused by the pandemic and closing down more and more parts of the production is not helping the problem. While things are still relatively tame in the west, the supply lines will only get thinner under the lockdown and the economy will continue its downturn. That is not the news we want to hear but it is one we should be listening to.
Quite often I hear the argument that questioning the lockdown policy is putting the economy ahead of human lives. The thing we have to understand is that the economy IS people’s lives. Your standard of living, whether you have a job, the funding of hospitals, welfare – those depend on the economy. Shutting it down for a long time can cost more lives than the virus itself. Furthermore, the lockdowns cause isolation and lack of purpose that leads to an increase in suicide rates and alcoholism. Those are not irrelevant factors. When we are discussing whether and for how long we should impose lockdowns we cannot just say it’s protecting grandma, without also considering what it does to the rest of the family.
You Heartless Bastard
All of these things need to be considered when discussing coronavirus policy. It is not a simple issue. There is not a simple answer. Lockdowns have their benefits but they also have many faults. The idea of “herd immunity”, implemented in Sweden for example, is not a “heartless action” as some suggest. It’s a solution that tries to address the long-term problem of seasonal infection waves, same as a vaccine. It’s a solution that might allow the country to get through the pandemic without devastating its economy and creating mass unemployment for years. The line of argument that says opposing lockdowns is equal to wishing for people to die or that people only go outside “to get a haircut” is showing a critical lack of thinking and the levels of ignorance normally reserved only for fruit and vegetables.
Thanks to empirical data we know who the targeted population should be. Instead of making a broad lockdown policy we should perhaps strategically target and isolate those most at risk rather than breaking the economy for the sake of looking compassionate. We should focus on what we know, instead of what we fear. We should weigh all the negatives and think in long-term as opposed to being swayed by emotions and mislead by black and white visions of the world. And most importantly, we should always be ready to show some good faith, listen to others, and question our beliefs so that we may agree on the best policy, instead of the most popular one.
Title Photo by Markus Spiske