The world has lived through months of coronavirus crisis, and now we know just enough to draw some conclusions. And we should. Even with deaths dropping day by day, the threat of the global pandemic still looms large on a global scale. Perhaps worse, we’re being told we can never go back to the normal life, and the only way forward is ‘the new normal’.
Lesson #1 Local over global
We are made to be where we are. If we want to benefit from knowing in real time what’s happening around the world, we need to make it higher priority to be present locally. When the media is calling for panic, we need to balance that out with what we see when we take a walk. Throughout the crisis, we’ve experienced some degrees of panic porn and perhaps we were most surprised to see a death certificate that listed COVID-19 as a cause of death. Or you heard about empty hospitals and laid-off nurses and yet couldn’t schedule for a cancer screening.
If we had all focused on what we knew, up close and personal, things might have gone differently. If the media is panicking and the experts are screaming, what we’ve learnt is to take the news with a grain of salt and take our walk.
Lesson #2 Balance expert advice with common sense
Expert warnings are not always easy to judge. For one, it’s the experts’ duty to convince the citizens, in plain English, of what they fear and what they want the citizens to do about it. May be their dire warnings sound credible when dressed up in technical language. Still we must insist they explain in a way that allows us to judge the reality.
More often than not, we have more time than the experts are telling us. If a credible authority calls for prompt, reasonable action, by all means get on board. But don’t rush and get stampede into imprudent choices. If you find out later the choice was wrong, be prepared to demand a change in course.
Lesson #3 Take care of the most vulnerable
From the beginning, we should have focused more efforts on the most vulnerable. Instead of taking care of the sick and the elderly, we did the opposite in some places. To free up hospital beds, some states ordered nursing homes to accept patients with active infections who were being discharged from hospitals. What’s even more shameful is that they kept at it even though it became clear the projected numbers for needed beds was way too high.
On the other hand, Florida governor, Ron DeSantis took the right approach. He studied early evidence from countries such as South Korea and Italy and noticed the much greater risk for the elderly. The result is he focused on protecting retirement communities and nursing homes.
Lesson #4 Question the models and predictions
Suddenly predicting the weather seems like child play when compared to predicting what billions will do during an unprecedented event. If we had applied the same level of skepticism with which we view the weather forecast, things could have gone differently. Of course, the pandemic would have done what it did but we could have minimized the mess.
To the credit of New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, he learned to carry a salt shaker with him. He refused to predict when the hardest-hit American city would open but also sensibly refused to let expert predictions dictate. He said, “Now, people can speculate, people can guess, I think next week, I think two weeks, I think a month.” He added, “I’m out of that business, because we all failed at that business. All the early national experts, here’s my projection, here’s my projection model, they were all wrong, they were all wrong.”
Lesson #5 Be aware of the overconfidence of experts
Expert advice is like a bright light. It’s useful when pointed in the right direction. Otherwise, it could blind you completely. The coronavirus pandemic offers both leaders and citizens three lessons on how to make use of expert advice.
- Experts are often wrong, especially about the future. They also contradict each other, whether it’s about masks or surface cleaning or death rates. Different experts keep saying different things and in some cases the same expert said different things.
- Most experts don’t get the first lesson. They see how it applies to others but they don’t see how it applies to themselves. Before the pandemic strikes, authorities like WHO could have been quite candid about what they didn’t know. But when the widespread panic set in, they had a hard time admitting ‘we don’t know’.
- Knowledge is different from wisdom. Most experts work in silos and their overconfidence in what they do often leaks, causing them to shut out everything outside their belief system. Experts have their place. But sometimes they need to be put in their place.
Lesson #6 Take traditional media cautiously
Even in the widespread panic, there were a few glimpses of positivity in the mainstream media. Still the incentives of the media to instill fear into the public loomed large. If there’s one thing we learnt about the mainstream media, it’s that we don’t have to be carried along by fear mongering, which can change from week to week, or day to day even. People could see that hospitals were not overrun, in fact many were mostly empty. The ventilators were not running out and healthcare workers were not dying for the lack of protective equipment. And the president wasn’t cutting testing to hide the second wave of deaths. To fortify ourselves against the pandemic, that might remain a threat for a foreseeable future, we may just need to take everything from the media with a grain of salt.
Lesson #7 Make social media accountable
Content on social media platforms stirred up panic even more. But so did the platforms themselves. Facebook and YouTube validated official opinion and censored unapproved opinion even from genuine experts. Rather than providing open platforms for debate, they’ve become creepy protectors of the party line.
There’s one suggestion though that could help. Facebook, Twitter and other big players enjoy the legal status of neutral platforms. In this way, they’re like AT&T and Verizon, they’re not responsible for third-party content, so they can’t be held liable for any third-party commitments. If they are really neutral, that would have been fair. But they were not treating posts and tweets, the way AT&T and Verizon were treating phone calls. We’ve seen that over and over again.
So it turns out these firms have to make a choice: either act like neutral platforms and allow anyone to post anything that’s legal or lose the legal privilege of being treated like one. In the latter case, they would be treated like publishers, legally liable for everything that’s posted on their platforms. It seems quite obvious they’d prefer the advantage of neutrality.