Just because something becomes the group norm doesn’t ever mean it’s the right thing to do
Thanks to the power of the mass media and the fact we expose ourselves to its sensationalism every waking moment of our lives (can’t stop staring at those beguiling screens, can we?) the world is now firmly in the grip of hysteria over a virus that all available data shows to be essentially harmless for 98% of the population.
We’ve thrown half a billion of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people into absolute poverty in which millions will soon starve to death. We’ve made tens of millions of the poorest citizens of the West even more financially insecure than they were before, a situation from which few if any will ever recover.
Central banks are printing vast amounts of money to pay for the impact of the global shut-down which inevitably will lead to inflation that will hugely erode ordinary people’s savings while ultimately boosting the already-obscene wealth of the super-rich because they own hard assets that will increase in value with inflation.
And we have no credible exit strategy.
Some people might think this wasn’t a very smart position to adopt. And they’d be right.
It’s all very well criticizing the folly of citizens who were so easily stampeded into mass hysteria by irresponsible media organizations, and the folly of politicians who scurried to appease this hysteria by adopting policies that inflicted enormous self-harm. The real question is: what should we have done instead?
Thanks to the fact that covid-19 began in China, the West had a few weeks of data to study before the outbreak began to manifest around the globe. Although one must always be skeptical of any data coming out of China, it was nevertheless apparent very early on that this particular coronavirus endangers almost exclusively the old & frail and those with compromised immune systems. About half of all those infected by the virus exhibit no symptoms at all, and of the remainder most people have flu-like symptoms for a few days before recovering completely.
Armed with this rough-and-ready profile, the rest of the world could have pause for a fraction of a second to think before panicking.
Governments could have initiated information campaigns to counter the irresponsible sensationalism of the mass media so as to reduce the potential for mass hysteria that was always inevitable given that the average person knows nothing about anything and simply absorbs whatever happens to be presented to them on their screens.
Governments could have moved quickly to provide suitable isolation facilities for the tiny percent of the population that are truly at risk. This would have cost a fraction of the trillions of dollars that are now being printed to bail out corporations and, to a lesser extent, ordinary citizens. By moving quickly to protect those who are really at risk, we’d have avoided over-loading the health services while simultaneously minimizing economic impact. There would have been plenty of money to pay for everything without the need for increasing public debt to totally unsustainable levels.
As the virus moved through the population, things would have carried on as usual, just as they do every flu season when billions contract the virus and on average around 400,000 people die worldwide (which, the astute reader will note, is many more than have now died of covid-19 across precisely the same period of time). A few people would have taken time off work but life would have continued as normal. Children’s education wouldn’t have been crippled, half a billion poor people wouldn’t have been thrown into starvation, and we wouldn’t all be locked terrified in our homes for an indefinite number of months.
Most importantly, as the virus moved through the population we’d all be building up natural immunity. Daily random testing would indicate how widespread this immunity was becoming. Once testing indicated that at least 95% of the general population was producing antibodies and therefore were immune, we could release the old and the sick from their protective isolation, confident that the effect of “herd immunity” would ensure they were no longer at risk.
So: maximum safety for those who are truly in danger and no absurd self-harm for the rest of the world. Trillions of dollars saved by spending billions quickly in a focused manner to protect those who really needed to be protected.
That’s quite a contrast to today’s situation, where no government has any credible exit plan. Conversely the smart strategy we ought to have adopted has its own exit plan baked in, and would have left 98% of people around the world free to carry on with their normal lives because they were never at any risk of dying from the virus.
So why weren’t we smart instead of stupid?
As I’ve written elsewhere on Medium, we were stampeded into mass hysteria by a sensation-addicted mass media that relies on grabbing eyeballs in order to create revenue streams. Calm presentation of facts has no place in a business model utterly dependent on sensationalism.
Thus today we have billions who are unnecessarily terrified, half a billion on the verge of starvation, governments incurring debts they’ll have to tax us all more highly to repay, billions of lives disrupted, and no credible way out. As the WHO points out, relaxing our current posture now that we’ve backed ourselves into a corner will simply mean seeing the death rate rise again.
We’ve been very stupid indeed.
In a better world, we’d learn something from this lesson. We’d begin to realize we can’t tolerate mass media pursuing a business model that guarantees total lack of social responsibility. We’d begin to realize we need to think before flailing wildly. We’d begin to realize that our instincts mislead us terribly in a complex inter-connected world that few citizens even vaguely begin to comprehend. We’d understand that politicians are generally slow-witted charlatans whom we elect because they successfully dupe us, not because they have any capacity for coherent thought or true leadership. We;d recognize that representative democracy merely exacerbates our cognitive limitations rather than serving to mitigate them in some small way.
In the actual world, however, I’m confident we’ll learn absolutely nothing at all.
And so we’ll all be back here once again, sooner than you think.