“We didn’t know what was coming”

A prevalent argument about Covid that isn’t quite true

If the 2020 lockdowns had been part of a comprehensive plan with all kinds of built-in safety nets for the population, I might have been ok with them. But the truth is, governments improvised — and badly. A number of countries or regions have a second round of lockdowns now, based on the same flawed reasons as last year. They’ve had a year to work out better plans. And the truth is, they’ve had decades before that to prepare. Sars-Cov2 did not come as a surprise to epidemiologists and their teams who tried to work out pandemic plans with governments.

I recently spoke with a friend, a very intelligent* person, who said: “We didn’t know what was coming with this virus, and now it turns out there might be long-term effects in surviving patients — so locking the population down is correct”. There are two major issues with this argument.

Firstly, scientists knew almost exactly what was coming. And no, this is not a conspiracy theory. There were various teams around the globe working (or trying to work) with governments on a pandemic action plan. (If you’re not the reading type, at least watch “Pandemic: How to Prevent an Outbreak” on Netflix, which was released in January 2020, i.e. filmed before Covid, and eerily predicted what was coming). Pre-2020, a major outbreak had been expected any day now, and to people who paid just a little bit of attention, Sars-Cov2 did not come as a surprise at all. But few governments have ever cared about what scientists had to say about seriously complex issues. (And of course there are two types of scientists — those who are out there doing the work, almost exactly predicting Sars-Cov2; and those who prefer brown-nosing politicians and flirting with media, dumbing down information when accurate language is really important and, releasing completely ridiculous theoretical mathematical models which do not add up when real life factors are taken into account. In 2020 the Twitter-brains chose to listen to the latter.)

Secondly, hindsight is always 20/20. You cannot retrospectively rationalise action taken nearly a year ago and say “oh, but we were right”, citing brand new arguments that played no role in said action. Govermments and media kept going on about scarcity of hospital beds and infection rates; long-term effects were not on the table. If — in the same sentence — you’re making the argument that everything was unknown at the time the decisions were made, you cannot then imply that you did the right thing. At least a few governments admitted last year that they were flying totally blind. So at best they got lucky, they were certainly not right. (In any case, potential long-term effects are only just being explored and are therefore a purely speculative argument. I also think that we might want to consider defining “long-term” as more than one year. As I’ve written in a previous article, I do not agree with scientists employing tabloid techniques these days: crying wolf before they’ve actually seen the beast with their own eyes.)

I’m not questioning my friend’s intelligence per se, or that of people who think similarly to him. I question their ability to think rationally and logically, and how they apply their intelligence. It’s been shown over and over in studies that the more intelligent someone is, the easier it is for them to interpret data in a way that favours their world view. Along with the ever-dwindling importance of facts, it has become a real issue that the intellectual elite does no longer stand for objectivity. By that I mostly mean objectivity about their own thought process. Everyone’s entitled to an opinion, but it gets dangerous, when they don’t recognise it as such and instead mistake opinion for truth. If I said to the same friend “we must lock up all Muslims, to prevent even just one of them from committing a terrorist act”, he’d be outraged, even though my suggestion would work exactly as well/badly as Covid lockdowns have worked. It’s precisely the kind of thinking and rationalising my friend applies — it’s the new Covid-logic. (Sorry for the Muslim example, I just wanted to point out the hypocrisy in people’s thinking with a topical issue).

If governments had listened to scientists earlier and at least come up with the outlines of a pandemic plan, I am 100% convinced that nowhere in there it would have said: “ Point 1) Lock up entire population”. This virus is here to stay and if the vaccines don’t work, we have to continue with our lives anyway. We cannot continue locking down countries, forbidding people to see family and friends, and keeping people from working. If you personally want to stay home and isolate yourself because you’re scared, then you’re welcome. But we’ve set a very dangerous precent now; “Lock up entire population under the guise of protecting them” has suddenly become a valid point of action in a government’s response plan. I absolutely hate hyperbole (so, apologies again!), but Nazi Germany wasn’t Nazi Germany over night either — it happened gradually. It’s a slippery slope and our soles lost a lot of traction in 2020, because intelligent people didn’t say: “Stop! We have to find a different way to do this”. Instead they’re now post-rationalising (with really dangerous logic) government action that was ultimately ineffective, damaging (economically, socially, psychologically), and haphazard.

I will re-iterate the strongest feeling I have about Covid (or anything, for that matter): No good has ever come from overreacting. And people overreact when they’ve lost perspective on reality.

image from forbes.com

*Intelligence is invariably defined as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills” or similar. I do neither equate intelligence with IQ nor level of education. But the definition is not enough for me; to me intelligence also entails an ability to take a certain forward view, to at least mentally analyse the consequences of actions, and to take responsibility for them if the intelligent being chooses to proceed with the action.

I am a scientist and writer. I aim to be a voice of reason and facts in this distorted world in which opinions are considered truth.

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