I awoke early this morning, before the alarm, thinking about teaching. Over the weekend, leaders in our largest colleges and universities and in our government have taken steps to limit the spread of COVID-19. It is not yet a state of emergency–though the City of Calgary has joined the United States in this approach–but our local officials are following the guidance of Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam that we need to act now to “flatten the curve” of VOCID-19’s spread. The Michigan Health Blog shows in a simple chart what we mean by that.
This is not charting the novel Coronavirus growth pattern, and there are a lot of nonsense statistics and graphics floating around social media. The viral growth in the United States has been relatively rapid compared with Canada (an exact reverse of SARS in 2003-04, for largely the same reason). As the US data seems to get people excited, let me show the Canadian data visually, as of yesterday:
The chart shows that all 10 provinces in Canada have cases of the virus, but it is not yet in our territories. A tool like the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, and some knowledge of Canadian geography (rare, I know), will show a relatively contained and quickly moving virus, mostly in Canada’s urban centres.
But the chart is pretty striking. It is what, I think, media might call “exponential growth,” but it is actually just rapid growth (we’ll address that in a moment). The case is not one for panic either here or in the United States. Because of the nature of this virus and because of social measures, according to these numbers, 80% of known cases are travel-related, and another 10% trackable contacts. It remains a trackable phenomenon. To date, only one person has died in Canada (69 deaths in the US), and only 1/7 have been hospitalized. The fact that 2/3 of known cases are people over 40–the age that travels most for business or pleasure–suggests that it is likely there are some under-40 carriers who have few or no symptoms and a robust recovery rate. People over the age of 70, however, have a 1/10 chance of dying, and that rate nearly doubles for those above 80.
So, are we supposed to panic or not? Charts like the above are meant to lead us to thinks so, though only 1 in 45,000 has contracted the virus thus far (Canada is 1 in 100,000, the US 1 in 90,000).
No, we aren’t supposed to panic.
Granted, I am biased. In a sermon I preached yesterday–perhaps the last live service we’ll get to have for a while (you can see it here)–I argued that we should not be afraid. We do not know if this is the end of civilization, or the last we’ll see of some friends or family. We don’t know if it is something we’ll ride hard for a period and recover from, or if all this investment of time and money will have been a waste. We are guaranteed nothing in his life except that, from a Christian perspective, our hope is rooted in something deeper than a current crisis. We invest heavily in this world, but we don’t root our hopes here.
As the single most repeated prohibition in the Bible is “Fear Not!”, I am theologically biased against panic and fear-based response. But I can waver–mostly out of a curious mind that can imagine a million scenarios. In fact, I’d love to have time to write them out in stories, but all these preparations have me inundated with work!
I believe, though, that we need not panic.
Granted this, I am part of a counter-panic resistance force that comes to this front line against fear for many different reasons. As much as I want to tell people to “steady on” and “Fear Not!” in these days, there is something disturbing about the other side of things that we have to address.
Though related, I’m not going to talk about Media Hyperbole–the deep, rich, steady, “exponential growth” voice of panic at local and national levels. An interesting moment in the US was when the main editorial voices at Fox News went out of step with the White House to talk about the emergent virus. It is true that the response of the United States was slow, which comes out of a large, unwieldy system, the realpolitik of American life, and the leadership capabilities of the current government. But when Fox was faced with a choice between ideological friendship or a chance to incite panic, it’s not terribly surprising it chose the latter. That is the nature of media in our moment, and Fox is a steadier hand than some right now.
Also related, but also too big to talk about is our cultural addiction to Conspiracy Thinking. Americans are particularly good at this, it seems–though it might be just that American media dominates our various screens. There remains a weird party-line split in the US, so that Democrats are more concerned about COVID-19 than Republicans. This largely comes down to who you trust, and Republicans are more likely to trust this White House than Democrats (though there is shakiness in this number). Intriguingly, an Economist/You Gov poll shows that 13% of Americans thought on Mar 8-10 that the Coronovirus was a hoax–and 25% more Americans hesitate, saying that it’s probably not a hoax.
It might appear that I’m making a left-right distinction: left-leaning minds are inviting panic and distrust in government, while right-leaning minds flirt with conspiracy. That might be the case now, but it was the precise reverse during the H1Ni panic of 2009 (which happened during a recession rather than causing one). The conspiracy theory survey data shows that this view is only partly correlated ideologically, and I also think it’s the case that these views will level out–though YouGov interprets the data to show that the Conspiracy Theory train continues with a new focus.
Instead of talking about either of these social realities, I want to come to the heart of the problem for those of us who are more cautious about over-caution.
Honestly, I am as disturbed by the public panic as I am by the conspiracy theories–though conspiracy theorists we will always have among us, someone once said. It is specifically not the case that systematic panic and over-correction by governments–particularly those slow to act initially–will not have an effect on people. Let me say it positively:
Bad leadership that creates undue restrictions will hurt people who are vulnerable.
Specifically, who is going to be economically okay during social distancing? People with white-collar jobs, stable businesses where they control their own destiny, and those in essential services who are generally well paid, if underpaid. And who is going to lose their jobs and maybe their livelihood? People who are already poor, already making low wages, already untrained for vocational flexibility, and those with businesses either on the edge of trouble or unduly affected by quarantinism (like those in the travel and hospitality sectors, support workers for schools, daycare workers, etc.).
There is a cost to panic, but it is a cost borne by people who can’t afford to panic-buy toilet paper or hole up in tech-connected, Laz-Y-Boy bunkers.
I think government reactions in Canada and the US are flirting with this kind of overcorrection, with infection rates still in the 1/100,000 rate and with a mortality rate of 2.3-3.4% (though with an infection rate of double normal flu). Moreover, in a democracy, it always pays for elected officials to focus on the middle and upper classes.
However, I might be wrong in my hesitation to isolate, and I am certainly not the best person to determine those things. My schools have closed and I will work to move my teaching online. We probably won’t have a church gathering for a while, and I will do whatever it takes to help. I can work at home and help out as a citizen in the ways that present themselves. It will be sad to do so, but if required I will cancel my research and conference trips this spring. If I am told that I cannot leave the house to plant my garden in the spring, I may find ways to resist if it appears to be folly. But, spring is a long ways away, and I am pleased to comply as much as possible.
Partly, this is because I am neither at risk for the virus (those 60+) nor at risk for economic hardship because of social isolation (I am underpaid whether I work in an office or at home). And another part of me wants to be a good neighbour, a steady head and hand during a time of crisis.
At a deeper level, though, my logic for complying with social isolation measures is very simple.
If we fail to act and this contagion becomes a plague, we will know that we failed to act in time and in the right ways. If our response measures are weak, or if the novel coronavirus evolves (they have a tendency to do this) and mortality or infection rates increase, or if people break the quarantine walls and allow the virus to jump locations, then people will die. When that happens, we will know that we have done too little.
But here’s the thing: When it comes to reasonable restrictions of social movement, we can never know if we have done too much.
Well, someone might know, and government forces can go too far in restrictions. But a virus is not like preparing for a storm that never arrives or resisting an army that fails to break the wall.
If our measures fail, there will be blame to go around.
But if all the governmental and societal measures succeed in stopping the virus, if we bend the curve, if this virus fizzles out into nonexistence or sleeps until a cure arrives, then for conspiracy theorists or virus-deniers or anti-whatever-government-is-in-power or plain old common sense cautionists like myself, we can never make a case for the governments’ social isolation measures. C.S. Lewis said it himself decades ago,
“theory which could never by any experience be falsified can for that reason hardly be verified” (Letters to Malcolm 50).
This is the double-edged sword of cautionary measures.
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” my grandmother used to say. But for all our charts and figures and data, knowing what would have happened if is beyond human ken, and remains in the realm of folk wisdom. “What would have happened” is a universe outside of human contact, into which no wormhole currently exists.
This is why, then, I will do everything I can to support the COVID-19 resistance movement. This means saying “no” to media panic and conspiracy theory thinking–both of which cut indiscriminately with the double-edged sword of evidence as C.S. Lewis called it out. This means doing my best to present a positive if somewhat cynical social media presence. This means giving my students the best possible experience in the weeks that are left in the semester. And this means pitching in where I can to help as help is needed.
It isn’t often a rogue professor-theologian-writer-pastor-data-loving cynic can be helpful to society. But I can call for steadiness and I can speak for peace. I can preach against fear and tweet against conspiracy. I can’t turn a jack and I can’t lay a track, but I can use a pick and shovel–really, most anything they ask me to do.
And, ultimately, I can resist the resisters for the sake of others. And I hope you do too.
Don’t forget to wash your hands! And if you are stuck at home, I have 1,000+ blog posts where I write about faith, fantasy, and fiction from the perspective of a rogue professor-theologian-writer-pastor-data-loving cynic.
And teachers can check out this discussion about online teaching, hosted tonight!