Over recent months, if you’ve been paying attention, you may have heard of an interesting new phenomenon that has been circulating in the media. Its name varies, as do opinions about it, but it seems to be having a slight impact on the way that individuals and countries are interacting with each other. It’s just a little thing — microscopic, really — called Coronavirus.
Maybe you’re familiar?
However, much of the problem surrounding this new(ish) and highly contagious bug is that everyone is wrong about it. Everyone. And that is frustrating as heck, when we live in a world that loves to be correct, that loves to provide black-and-white answers to every question, and that loves to vilify detractors and canonize proponents.
If you are, like most people, in one camp or another on the subject of this worldwide pandemic; if you think you have the ‘right’ information; if you believe that your opinion on the matter is unassailable, then I am here to cause you some disillusionment. I hope you read this with a willingness to back down. I hope you are willing to enter into this discussion with fresh eyes and a little humility.
Most of all, it would be nice if we could all appreciate where the other side is coming from in the discussion, and stop believing that they are pawns, or idiots, or misinformed. The reality is that we are all misinformed, because nobody really knows what is going on.
“Just a Flu”
There are likely many of you who think that this argument is settled; that anyone who believes that Coronavirus is just a flu, or is ‘not that bad’ is mentally unstable. However, there is still no clear-cut information on just how bad, exactly, this new virus will turn out to be.
At the beginning of the year, all kinds of estimates were floating around regarding the infection rates, and the fatality rates, and the reproduction rates. How contagious is it? How many people will catch it? How many people will die? Computer models and estimates and early studies abounded with predictions ranging widely.
You might think that we have a firmer grasp on the severity, over 6 months later. You’d be wrong.
The reality is that there is no certainty about these numbers because the data is still incomplete. So much of it depends on variables that we can’t measure or control, and we are permanently left in the dark. Even as we collect more data, there is no sure way to know exactly what it represents. Some issues include:
- Tracking COVID deaths. Different standards in every hospital mean we do not know who died from Coronavirus, who died with Coronavirus, and which patients were presumed to have Coronivirus but never tested/confirmed
- Tracking current infections. Increased testing measures have a huge impact on any numbers we may be able to measure. Infection rates, and fatality rates, require an accurate count of who is infected. We cannot achieve these accurate counts.
- Tracking historic infections. We still have no way to track who has had COVID-19, or how much of the population has had it, or if people who have it once will have immunity. We have no way to accurately track the survivability or fatality if we cannot know who has survived!
The only sure thing we can say is that many people have had it, and many have died from it. It’s not a hoax — there are too many real accounts for that — and it’s not wiping us out at an unseen rate — there are too few accounts for that.
The reality is that the current toll for COVID sits somewhere worse than a typical flu season, but not as bad as the worst pandemic-level flu seasons from the past century. It is likely that, if left unchecked, this Pandemic would have been as bad as the worst flu pandemics in recent history. It’s also possible (though by no means certain) that it would be worse than all of them, aside from the 1918 Spanish Flu.
If you think Coronavirus is just a typical Flu, or some hoax, then you are wrong. Conversely, if you think it’s something the world hasn’t gone through before and is frighteningly catastrophic, you’re also wrong. In truth, it lies somewhere in the middle, but we’re not exactly sure where. The reality is that it’s bad, but we’ve also been through this before and moved on with little fanfare; as most people have never even heard of the pandemics in 1957 and 1968, this too will probably be a small, mostly-forgotten footnote in history.
Of course masks work, you say. Only an idiot would deny the science, right?
Masks are stupid, you rebut. Only an idiot would deny the science, right?
Let me break this down for the people in the back. Some studies have shown that masks work to prevent the spread of bacteria and droplets. Other studies have shown that masks have no impact on preventing bacterial infection, let alone viruses. BOTH sides have reasoned, well-intentioned, fact-based arguments. Here’s a brief overview:
- Stop droplets/aerosol from traveling as far
- Clearly stop bacteria from spreading (ie: Petri dish example)
- Protect the wearer from inhaling droplets with virus
- Studies have shown them to be effective (to varying degrees).
- Countries where mask-wearing was in place had low infection rates
Masks don’t work:
- Viruses are small and can pass through any mask
- Studies have shown surgical masks do not impact spread of bacteria.
- Droplets disperse around the wearer and remain in air/on face etc. These are inevitably transferred to hands.
- Long-term mask wearing creates a wet breeding ground for viruses.
- Studies have shown lack of effectiveness and that cloth masks can increase infection rates.
So, who is correct? Nobody. And everybody. Governments around the world have encouraged people to wear masks. And governments around the world (often the same ones) have told the public that mask-wearing is futile.
As of right now, the only sure thing is that we don’t know for sure. My advice is to do the only sensible and humane thing: Wear one if you think it will help, and don’t wear one if you think it will hurt. One thing seems clear, however: wearing a mask certainly makes most others feel safer and more protected. If you think a mask does nothing and so refuse to wear one out of conceit, or will not wear one because “my rights”, then you are choosing to be a selfish jerk. Which is fine, but please recognize that you are putting yourself and your pride ahead of the comfort of others. It is possible to believe that masks are ineffectual, and yet to wear one out of courtesy and concern for others around you.
“The Trump Drug”
If you’ve been following along, you may already have picked up on the trend that no one knows what’s going on. The same can be said for treatments, particularly regarding the use of Hydroxychloroquine/Zinc use.
I will not go into much detail on this front, as the general trend is similar to the above. The TL:DR version is: some studies and frontline doctors argue that it is hugely helpful. Other studies show that this treatment is not effective (and may have potentially harmful side effects). The use of this treatment has been highly politicized because of a couple comments that Donald Trump made, which has unfortunately skewed the discussion around it. There are many people who would either decry the use of it as dangerous, or promote it as salvational, simply to discredit or support the American president, which renders many opinions quite suspect.
But, again, the reality is that if you stand surely on one side of the fence, or the other, and vilify another opinion as obviously false, ignorant, or morally inferior, then you are simply perpetuating your own cognitive biases. There is enough evidence out there to appreciate the potential effectiveness of this treatment. There is also enough evidence out there to appreciate that it may be a red-herring.
To deny either side as simply some kind of political cover-up or conspiracy is to over-simplify and weaponize your own viewpoint. That’s dumb. It’s not good to be dumb.
Put in the Work
The reality is much, much more simple; nobody knows. Nobody can yet say with surety if this treatment works. Nobody can say with surety if wearing masks will save lives. Nobody can predict just how terrible the death toll will be, or would have been, or how serious this entire problem is. Anyone who pretends to know is fooling themselves, or has been misinformed.
We do not like uncertainty. We are wired to fear the unknown, and our brains will do just about anything to fill in those dark gaps in our knowledge. But one of the bravest and truest things you can do, as an individual, is to fight the urge to lock in a truth when there is no way to be sure. We’ve all got to make the best decisions we can, based on the very limited information we have. We can wear a mask, or not. We can travel or stay at home. We can request a treatment or reject it. All well and good.
But to be brave and true and authentic, we can also acknowledge that we are just making our best guess, and that we really do not know any better than the next guy. We can look to someone who is making a different choice and understand that they have different information and a different perspective; one which, ultimately, might be more accurate than our own. This requires holding your own understanding in tension rather than letting it settle; it requires constantly questioning and reflecting; and most importantly, it requires taking yourself lightly.
This approach is work, but it’s the best kind of work — the kind that brings grace and light into the world, rather than anger and resentment and division. It fosters discussion and dialogue and growth, rather than ignorance and stagnancy. I encourage you to do this good work, wherever you are and whatever you currently think. Do not let yourself settle in to the trap of being ‘right’, but be curious and questioning and brave enough to accept your own — and the world’s — uncertainty. There’s plenty of it to go around.