Why the Logic of Prevention will Always Fail for Some: Steady Thoughts in Response to COVID-19

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!

 

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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26 Responses to Why the Logic of Prevention will Always Fail for Some: Steady Thoughts in Response to COVID-19

  1. Callum Beck says:

    I too am in the no panic camp but recognize that I have to move in lock step with society and so will support the social distancing asked of us. It may even give me time to get some writing finished. What has been most interesting to me, media wise, was that the first talk-show host to warn of the upcoming pandemic and take it very seriously, was Tucker Carlson of Fox, who jumped on it when there were just a few cases in Wuhan. I like Tucker, but at the time thought he was over-reacting, but time seems to have proven him right. He got a few little jabs from others at Fox, but his main criticism was of the MSM who were ignoring this real news story in favor of their most recent attempt to impeach Trump, and because of their refusal, like the NBA, to offend China. Fox, in the last two weeks, has also criticized Trump for his handling of the matter, but in a much more balanced way than the MSM, who refuse to see anything good in what he is doing. Fox have in fact dealt with the COVID-19 story it in a far less partisan way than the MSM has.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Callum, I don’t watch the superstar shows of people like Tucker or the blond guy on CNN, or the Fox lady that always yells, or anything MSNBC. I sometimes watch data panels. Part of the reason for that is Tucker Carlson, who said some things at one point in the past that I knew not to be true but that fit well his agenda. I now only look at the journalism wing of Fox News, not the commentators. I also don’t like Fox’s website, which never fails to have sexily clad women on it for random reasons–something that fits weirdly into their sexist demographic in a way I don’t understand. In this case, nothing I see from Fox is inflammatory (if I can use that pun). I’m sure they’ll get there eventually. They are wedded to disaster, the media.
      The American president was originally scornful and slow to respond, offering non-factual information and either intentionally confusing things or clearly misinformed. There is still weird stuff coming from his office, but back in line with his way of thinking.
      I don’t know who MSM are but I don’t they are probably necessary to my life.
      In Canada things are pretty steady. Are all the provincial and national health directors women? The Alberta and PEI ones have been so clear and steady.

      Like

      • Actually, I need to apologize for this note about Tucker Carlson. As I slept I began to wonder who this really was. I went to my journal, and my struggle was not with Carlson but another host. I clearly have no idea who Carlson is or was. I still don’t watch talk show news.

        Like

        • Callum Beck says:

          Tks for the apology, your response did sound a little visceral. Tucker would be Fox’s second main anchor who does op-eds. Solidly conservative politically but often taking independent stands on many issues that are neither the Republican or Democratic norm, for example on China, on USA getting out of foreign wars and on this coronavirus issue (though all news media have now caught up to him).

          Like

          • Well, I still feel the same about the other Fox editorialist and have thus sworn off the whole enterprise. I was almost convinced to rewatch Fox’s editorial team when they were claiming that Jesus was white–just for the clear ridiculousness of it. But that got old too.
            Past the headlines, avoiding the editorialists, Fox News has some good journalism. Best wishes to Carlson.

            Like

  2. Catherine B. says:

    Hi Brenton,

    I completely agree with you that we should never panic–panic causes us to lose so much patience with ourselves and others that problems will never get solved.

    Are people really spreading conspiracy theories though? I looked up the definition for “conspiracy theory”, and Marriam-Webster calls it “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators”. So if this is what this phrase means, would a conspiracy theorist be an individual who claims that the virus was planned, and spread intentionally? I have not been looking at the news a lot lately, so just now I looked up Fox News. Fox News does seem to believe that China didn’t spread enough awareness about the virus, but I didn’t hear anyone on there claiming that it was spread intentionally.

    This is very well written though, and I agree with most of what you said. Please let me know if I misunderstood. Stay healthy!

    Like

    • Hi Catherine, thanks for the note. Yes, there is a strong group of people who are arguing that (early on) there was no virus, and then that the virus was a government plot of some kind. There isn’t a single story, which is the nature of these things, like the 9/11 Truther movement. Fox News is not specifically the problem, nor CNN, but journalism isn’t what it was, or what it could be.
      That so many Americans flirt with the idea of it being a hoax is a bit troubling.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. cj says:

    In the UK we just got advice to stay away from pubs, restaurants, theatres and work from home if possible, in order to help flatten the curve. Which doesn’t go as far as many countries who have closed borders and schools. Who’s to say what the correct response is when we don’t know enough about it yet, but I appreciate that the government are taking it seriously, are preparing for increased demand on the health service, and seem to be transparent in their aims. We went out to the grocery store today, but we’ll do our best to comply with the advice, especially knowing we could be asymptomatic carriers and we don’t always know who around us is vulnerable and who is not. I’m so thankful that my partner and I have youth and health on our side at this time as we know (of course) that not everyone has this advantage. Thanks for being a level head and a good neighbour, and cheers to not getting sucked into the panic-media-machine.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I agree: the world needs to be level-headed over the Covid-19 outbreak. I suspect it won’t be, of course. There is also another problem: economics. The world never fixed the General Financial Crisis of 2008-10; it merely kicked that particular can into the future. The world has been ripe and ready for a major crash since, and Covid-19 looks like being the trigger for it. Quite a bit of world prosperity comes not from actual production, but from a belief in the robustness or otherwise of abstract markets – the stocks and shares, the money markets and so on. A drop in confidence can have catastrophic effects on them, for no better reason than loss of faith that they will continue to grow. And this seems to be happening now. So on top of the humanitarian issues we’ll have to handle economic problems, even after the pandemic has subsided. A double whammy. The old adage of keeping calm and carrying on seems apposite about now.

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. Hi Brenton, firstly I send my greetings to you and your family and assure you of my prayers.
    Do not be afraid is not, I think, a call to be calm. Perhaps calm will be granted to us but surely the people of the greatest courage are those who keep going, who do what is right, even though they are afraid. The people in the bible who are addressed thus by God are marked out by their decision to trust God despite their fear and despite, very often, their lack of knowledge of God.
    I preached at a funeral this morning and suddenly felt a great freedom to speak about this trust even though only a few present were people who I know to be of faith. Maybe it was because of the Country Music that the family asked to be played. Maybe it was because people are suddenly become serious. I am having so many serious conversations right now. Often with complete strangers. I am not a haranguing kind of preacher. More of the inviting kind. I sense that people are more open to the invitation right now.

    Like

    • Thanks Stephen! I’ve gotten swept up on administrative work that is mostly COVID-related. Students, schools, church–all things spinning off, while my deadlines remain the same.
      You are right that this is a moment–and for many a moment of reflection. Best to you–and I hope you find ways you can minister when doors become more closed even when hearts are opened.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Branching off a bit, I was glad to encounter this:

    https://www.patheos.com/blogs/anxiousbench/2020/03/influenza-pandemic-1918-churches/

    But I suddenly wonder what ‘we’ know about the (then still future) Inklings – and those other two of ‘the Seven’, Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers – and that pandemic… (Nothing springs clearly to mind, and I have not tried to do any ‘homework’ on this, yet.)

    I do like the applicability of a much later Lewis passage I saw quoted the other day about “doing sensible and human things — praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts” in dangerous and alarming times – though ‘social distancing’ would sensibly cut out the last two, in at least the ordinary way, while our current audio-visual technology can facilitate various of them (maybe even some sort of real-time game of darts on different boards!).

    Liked by 1 person

  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    One of the most interesting general background posts I’ve seen so far, if you’ll indulge my submitting it:

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-scientist-youre-not-going-to-see-millions-of-people-die-from-covid-19/

    Like

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