18 December 2020 Daily Maverick
There is a lot we don’t know yet about Covid-19 and how it will evolve. What we do know is that wearing masks and sanitising are key, while physical distancing and ventilation of enclosed spaces are vital. So, let’s not be selfish.
Who’s more likely to die, a soldier deployed to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2014 or someone living in the US or the UK if they contract Covid-19?
Most people would opt for the soldier because he or she would have been going into one of the world’s worst conflict zones at the time, against people with the stated intention of stopping them by any means possible, whether by shooting them in the head or planting improvised explosive devices at the roadside.
According to the Guardian newspaper, the British mortality rate in Afghanistan during that period was 2.8 per 100,000 deployed. The US rate was slightly better at 2.5 per 100,000 soldiers. But here’s the thing: In August 2020, according to German firm Statista, the Covid mortality rate per 100,000 people was 70.16 in the UK, 49.65 in the US and 17.67 in South Africa.
Covid-19 is a killer. Getting it is more dangerous than going to war. The numbers don’t lie, even though our opinions might.
We have done well in South Africa by comparison. We had an incredibly tough lockdown and didn’t quibble about wearing masks or sanitising our hands – until we became complacent and started sending children to Rage and going to parties ourselves. We observed physical distancing. In the US and the UK people still can’t even agree on the need to wear masks, never mind impose lockdowns.
Why is this? More to the point, why – if we know what the science says – are we starting to ignore the perils of the pandemic?
You see it every day, and now we are officially in the second wave of Covid- 19 in South Africa.
Perhaps it’s because we can’t see the consequences of our actions, much like the person who smokes and drinks without any side-effects until they’re 90, or the person who swims off an unprotected beach every day in summer but never gets attacked by a shark. Yet, when miners go underground they never forget their hard hats or safety lamps. Soldiers don’t go on patrol without weapons and ballistic armour.
As human beings, we rationalise everything, especially risky or antisocial behaviour, like the person who starts stealing stationery and the odd toilet roll mid-month from the office and graduates to State Capture. We can always find and rationalise convenient exceptions to the rule; letting us bend it to our own ends all the time. We resort to magical thinking, choosing superstition, alternative science, crackpot theories and fake news.
We do this because it allows us to stay secure in the warmth of our own prejudice and ignorance. We do it because it is so much easier than the pain of facing up to different narratives, ones that spell out the real threats, which might not pose an immediate danger but are statistically the most dangerous we could be facing at the moment.
It’s also an incredible act of narcissism and selfishness because even though we might not be at risk, we could be putting others at risk, especially if we are asymptomatic carriers, who make up to 50% of those infected. We see this in the US where people declare that their right to self-determination means they cannot be forced to wear a mask, even if it means protecting the lives of others.
Another part of our problem as human beings is that we want to live lives defined by binary certainties – yes or no, right or wrong – but science is nuanced and continually emerging. When science doesn’t give us certainty and absolute truths we tend to see it as flawed. We don’t see scientists challenging one another as part of the process of developing knowledge but rather as an either-or scenario in which we can take sides, even if it means losing faith in the sanctity of science and losing sight of the great truth articulated by the great Austrian and British philosopher Karl Popper: A theory can never be definitively proved but only disproved, as the next observations may contradict all the previous.
It’s the pathology of perfectionism. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t apply critical thought, what it means is that we need to develop a healthy scepticism, reading as widely as possible, listening and testing theories against our own knowledge and lived reality, knowing that the answer is neither fixed nor final, but iterative. Have strong opinions, but lightly held; do not fall victim to dogma.
What we know about this pandemic is continually evolving. That’s difficult for some people to rationalise, so they opt for anecdotal evidence from other people who share their difficulties. Those beliefs reinforce one another, especially in algorithm-driven echo chambers on social media, which in turn foments cynicism, which is unhealthy because it forces us to stop engaging and instead believe the world is flat, that the moon landings were a hoax and that Covid-19 is just a bad flu and we don’t need masks. And burn anyone at the stake who disagrees with us, for heresy.
The truth is we don’t know with any certainty how Covid-19 will evolve, whether the vaccines being licensed will work well and if so, for how long. That doesn’t mean we should dismiss them out of hand. Instead, as pilots who become lost and are finding themselves back on track mid-air will tell you, it’s better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.
What we do know at the moment is that wearing masks and sanitising are key, physical distancing is vitally important and so too is the ventilation of enclosed spaces. In the beginning the World Health Organisation didn’t think wearing masks was important, now it deems them critical. The first treatments in Italy involved intubating patients and placing them on ventilators, now they use plastic tents and infuse patients with oxygen.
Healthy scepticism allows us to deal with all these competing and evolving theories, unlike cynicism which just breeds blind anger and dissent. And makes us dumb. And when we do look at the science we will realise just how much at risk we and our loved ones are statistically from this virus and maybe we won’t be as foolhardy or selfish, just because we haven’t buried anyone from it yet.
Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director at Henley Business School Africa.