Saluting “A Balanced Response” to Covid-19

Today a magnificent development in Covid-19 discourse: A new web site has appeared with an Open Letter and a Statement endorsed by a bevy of senior medical and academic people, advocating “A Balanced Response” towards the virus. The web site is http://www.balancedresponse.ca, and I highly recommend it.

I have for several days been contemplating a blog post about that, but these people have spoken far better than I could have done. Responding to their invitation, I spoke to them as follows.

Dear Balanced Responders:

I am absolutely delighted to learn of your initiative and to read your web site. Many, many thanks for them.

You asked for feedback and here is mine. I apologize for its wordiness, but I am immensely excited and encouraged by what you have done and that tends to stimulate my thoughts and make me verbose.

Please extend my particular congratulations to the person or people who drafted the text. I have done that kind of writing professionally and I can recognize good work when I see it. Your letter and statement are the best I have seen in a long, long time, and certainly the best that has come out of Covid-19 discourse, if it can be called that.

We have been subjected to far too much “discourse” that is technically propaganda, well-intentioned propaganda no doubt, but still propaganda. I believe that decisions were taken at very high official levels deliberately to frighten the general public into compliance, a strategy enthusiastically augmented by the CBC, which is my main source of news, and which can only backfire eventually. Your Statement says, “Our leaders and public health authorities had to use strong language to support universal acceptance of these measures.” I believe the same effect could have been achieved by much less dubious rhetoric and abuse of statistics.

I am concerned that one serious side-effect of Covid-19 has been to stimulate the authoritarian dreams of some politicians and senior officials. “My goodness,” I hear them chortling, “we are ordering people around for their own good and they are obeying. Isn’t this fun!” It is but a short hop to, “Let’s do more of it!”.

Another has been to stimulate the finger-pointing and shaming instincts of some of our fellow citizens. Now that masks have emerged as a visible sign of compliance, this kind of anti-social behaviour will have every opportunity to prosper.

I agree entirely with your recommendation that: “Any requirements for mandatory masks must be based on strong evidence with clear specification of where they are most appropriate.” I am not yet seeing any real evidence (as opposed to guesswork) that a piece of cloth, or a flimsy piece of whatever medical-looking material is used, hooked behind the ears, is a protection against anything, let alone an extraordinarily crafty virus. It does protect against intrusive finger-pointing and shaming, I suppose, but forcing protection against that can only lead to rising levels of anger, which are bad for mental health. I support the intent of your Recommendation 12, but would add that we need to be not only responsive, but preventive. We should not trade one epidemic for another.

And what do we become as a community and society, if we routinely hide our faces from each other? How do you smile at someone from behind a mask? What does a mask say, if not, “I am afraid of you, and I think you are entitled to be afraid of me”?

The key to the approach you are recommending is in Recommendation 10: “Canadians must be better informed about their true level of risk from COVID-19. An accurate accessible risk assessment tool is a priority. This will help empower people to make informed decisions about how they choose to lead their lives. Help people understand and manage their fear and anxiety.” The questions that I ask myself continuously when I am out and about is, “What is the probability that the people I am going to meet will have the virus and will pass it on to me? What is the probability that I have the virus, and will pass it on to them? What is the probability of severe consequences, either way?” I study the data available to me, which are most distressingly incomplete, and I keep coming up with the the same answer: Those probabilities are very, very small, not negligible of course, but within the range of normal human existence or very close to it.

Development and cultivation of the risk assessment tool you recommend, even in the face of incomplete data, is within the scope of simple application of statistical decision theory, accessible to anyone who can do basic arithmetic and understands the meaning of odds. If the formula is out in the open it can be easily up-dated as new data come in.

I believe that development of a more sophisticated understanding of the term “case” would help enormously to prepare the ground, and also even crude demographic partitioning of the data, as you have done in your first Statement paragraph.

People in official positions need to be careful about the precision of their language. A nearby care home suffered a positive test in one of its elderly residents, causing enormous upheaval, distress, and cost not only monetary. The test turned out to be a false positive, but the incident was nevertheless referred to by the authorities as an “outbreak”.

I have published my recommendations for policy arising from Covid-19, although I do not pretend to have a wide audience. I have had them up on my web site (www.voyageurstorytelling.ca) for some time, ever since the patterns became clear. I pass them on to you for what they are worth:
(1) A Guaranteed Annual Income. If we had had that from the beginning the social safety net it would represent would kick in automatically for those in need.This measure would require higher taxation of the progressive redistributive kind.

(2) Massive Reform of Elder Care. Towards Home Care and minimally institutional forms of residence; away from large institutions especially those of the warehousing kind.

(3) Sophisticated Understanding of Risk. Covid-19 is a new risk and we don’t know how to think about it. We take risks all the time in our daily lives, especially with disease and accidents, and we know how to think about them. We need to apply the same kind of understanding.

(4) Journalism for Our Time. The present whip-saw oscillation between sensationalism and sentimentalism, along with grotesquely inadequate expertise in statistical interpretation on the part of journalists, is making any kind of contextual thinking extremely difficult for those who rely on regular journalism for understanding.

I think these sketchy ideas are compatible with your thinking, although I don’t think you addressed the first or, explicitly, the fourth. The latter is in line with your Recommendation 10, however. Understanding of context is extremely important for the kind of informed decisions you are talking about there.

I will indeed do as you ask, to spread word of your Open Letter and Statement on my social media sites and blogs. I look forward to further developments on your web site.

Again thanks, and all best wishes for wide acceptance of your ideas and advice.

Signed …

The whole response to Covid-19, up until recently, as been an almost unprecedented (at least since WW II and maybe not even then) application of onefold vision (single vision) to our macro-societal life. We have been under a form of authoritarian rule, supported by our own fears and lack of information (as such rule always is), justifiable only in a drastic emergency. It was possible in the early stages that we were in one of those, but has also been clear for at least two of the four months that this epidemic was no such thing unless we chose to make it one. We did. Now, finally, we have authoritative people expressing, with all the weight of their knowledge and experience, an alternative point of view. We need to celebrate that. They have given us a Fourfold Vision of how we should think and what we should do.

PWC, July 9 2020

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