Can we please have a sensible COVID discussion?

I signed the Great Barrington Declaration
Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

I wish we could have a sensible and rational discussion about the actual dangers from COVID19 and the necessity and appropriateness of our response. Instead I have the impression that we are ending up in two opposite camps with no discussion happening between them.

Essentially here in Germany we have a society that is split into two camps and both are trapped within their narrative, trapped in their groupthink and trapped in their growing dislike for the other side. COVID19 should not be an ideological issue but a scientific one. An issue that should be handled in a democratic way with dialogue and arguments.

Of course political ideology will inevitably color our preferences for or against certain measures. I am no exception. My classical liberal values make me prefer individual measures vs. state control. But should we not be able to discuss our values and try to find a consensus that most people can accept? We have done this before for myriad other societal and political issues. Instead we have these two insane views:

The pandemic narrative

This is the narrative espoused by almost all governments and most of the mainstream media. Their view is clear. This virus is dangerous, deadly and spreads easily. We need to do all we can to stop or at least slow its spread as do avoid as many deaths as possible until we have a vaccine (or effective treatment alternatively). This narrative is ruled by fear, by the pictures we saw from Italy, France or Spain and the terrible individual cases shown in the media.

Everything else seems to be subsumed under the goal of preventing infections. They are obsessed with new case numbers, incidence numbers, hospital occupancy rates, the ubiquitous “R” but they rarely see these numbers in a proper context. It seems like we are fighting a war against the virus and we need to do everything to win.

For it’s goal this narrative sees it as appropriate to lock down the economy, limit social life, regulate the way we can meet our friends and family and mandates us to wear masks in many places. These measures exact a high costs not only economically but also in health outcomes (due to missed screenings, therapies, depression and suicide), education, poverty (especially in the developing world) and the safety of our constitutional rights.

At the same time the measures are not be criticized. They are presented as being without any alternative. Well the only alternative would be deaths on a massive scale and the breakdown of our health care system. People who are skeptical are called corona deniers and here in Germany especially are put into one camp with Neo-Nazis and conspiracy theorists.

If you are a democratic government you should be open to criticism and discussion. But instead they are locked in their own group think and can’t find a way out until there is a vaccine. The politicians are unable to take a step back, look at the big picture and maybe even admit that some measures might have been too much or not effective at all. There should be no shame attached to changing course in a democracy.

The conspiracy narrative

The other side is even worse. While the government and every one else espousing the pandemic narrative have at least a worthwhile goal (avoiding death that is) the conspiracy narrative simply rejects everything. They do not even discuss. They are not willing to discuss. For them the whole pandemic is a means of “them” to take away our rights and to control us.

Of course the measures taken against the virus can be seen as destructive, ineffective and an infringement on our liberty. This should be acknowledged but framing it as a kind of plan to control us is insane. But these people are trapped in their narrative as well. They can only see the government as their enemy when instead it might just be overreacting (or maybe is just incompetent which can happen with politicians).

This narrative is ruled by fear as well. Fear fueled by fantasies about children being taken away from people who refuse vaccines, a cohort of leaders and big multinationals trying to control us, talk about a new marxist or fascist world order (take your pick). These people are beyond reasoning. They are overwhelmed with useful and harmful information, they are afraid and they can’t seem to make sense of the world. So they seek comfort in a simple truth that behind the incredibly complex world of today stands a plan, a conspiracy or some sinister force. One can clearly see that each group’s behavior reinforces the other side which makes it even worse.

How about a sensible COVID discussion instead of convenient narratives?

How about we gather the facts, take step back, allow ourselves to question past decisions and try to find a consensus. In march many governments scrambled to act because everything happened so fast and we lacked information. Over the summer with low infection numbers we should have had the discussion I am proposing here. But it is not too late. Here are some discussion points. I will try to not inject my opinions in here. I am going to write a different post about them. But of course I am not free of bias either.

  • We now know very well who is at high risk of dying from COVID19. For many people this virus nothing more than a mild to moderate flu. For some though it is deadly. There needs to be a discussion if a society wide lock down or a targeted protection scheme (like the Great Barrington Declaration proposes) better passes a cost-benefit-analysis.
  • Before the COVID19 pandemic there existed no clear scientific evidence that public mask wearing could slow the spread of a highly infectious respiratory disease. Suddenly they ought to help and were mandated. Now after more than half a year what is the evidence now? We should weigh the pros and cons and also at a minimum publicly acknowledge that masks do have adverse effects even if they turn out to be effective. We should question the places where masks are really necessary or consider a policy in which vulnerable people receive subsidized protective equipment instead.
  • We should accept that certain restrictions are simply not feasible in a democratic society. Restrictions on visiting friends and family are intrusive and in most cases not enforceable anyway. In Germany a couple who does not cohabit technically has to keep a distance of 1,5m all the time or wear masks if this is not possible. Who is going to follow this rule? In the same vein restrictions on visiting sick relatives in hospitals and care homes are a real hardship for families and might lead to less acceptance of other measures.
  • The media and the government should strive to present their numbers with proper context (or here). Seeing only the rising number of new cases and individual sob stories makes people anxious and fearful. A proper government response would be to set the numbers in context. To show for example how many people have died from or with COVID19 compared to how many people die from all other causes. We could compare this pandemic to influenza pandemics from the last years or even decades ago. Instead of showing pictures of sick people in hospital corridors we should show how many people with COVID19 are in a hospital, how many other people are there, how many beds are still available and we should compare these numbers to previous years.
    Humans are really bad at processing large aggregate numbers so we need proper context and comparisons.
  • Measures and restrictions should not be presented as without alternative. There is always an alternative and an open society should discuss these alternative before making a decision. And even after the decision has been made circumstances change, alternatives open up or close down and we should always evaluate our decisions.
  • Every government measure should be open to criticism and change in a democratic society. But we should also refrain from treating our government like it already is a dictatorship. There are lots of ways to express dissenting opinions. People can still protest, the courts still strike down laws, I can write and tweet my opinions and different interest groups are still able apply political pressure. People who are critical of the current policy should do so without associating with real conspiracy theorists and right wing activists. In fact those who protest against the government should clearly state that they have no common ground with those who deny the virus or deny our state’s legitimacy. But we should not forget the people who live in less than democratic countries whose leaders clearly used the pandemic to shore up more power nor should we forget to make clear, that this infringement on our liberties shall be strictly temporary.
  • We should acknowledge the fears of frightened people and not quickly label them conspiracy theorists. Some are genuinely worried, many still remember the repression in East Germany. Governments who strive for transparency and dialogue could do a lot to alleviate those fears and bring people back from the clutches of the conspiracy narrative. People are polarized around the issue and the government should not take sides but try to offer a balanced view.

I fear my cause is hopeless though. I predict that we will have to live with this situation until either a safe and effective vaccine arrives or the pandemic peters out on its own. Then after we have regained our senses will we look back at the insanity of these times. But the good news is that scores of scientists, journalists, book authors and consultants will make their living from this episode and hopefully it prepares us to deal in a more rational way with the next crisis.

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