Let’s start with science.
There is no such thing. By which I mean that there is no “thing”, no organization, no clear voice, and no offer of definitive answers. There are thousands of smart people around the world, most of whom in relevant fields have been busting their collective butts to figure out the nature of the beast that besets us and how to deal with it. However, it is not in the nature of science to “know” much of anything. There are working hypotheses with varying degrees of evidence behind them. Even questions which have been studied for centuries sometimes get turned on their heads in light of new information and ideas. Just ask Newton and Aristotle.
To expect, in the middle of the largest real-time experiment in global history, with the immense pressure of daily death counts and crashing economics, that initial guesses (masks, isolation, gloves, ventilators, risks by age cohort) would be even mostly correct reflects more our collective desperation than an appreciation of what scientists have to offer (most of whom have been careful to speak precisely about the meaning of their ideas). Trumpian critiques (if that is not too exalted a characterization) also reflect more of their speakers’ inability to cope with a complex, dynamic, and uncertain environment than a concern with the effects of early ideas that turned out to be incorrect, incomplete, or in need of revision.
Since Francis Bacon wrote, four hundred years ago, the nature of science has been to accept (revel in) this uncertainty and revise ideas in light of experiment and experience. Indeed, attacks on “science” are rooted in a coded resentment of scientists’ epistemological flexibility and ability to tolerate the limits of what we (as a species) know of our world.
Second is history. Global political, environmental, and medical crises have combined to make it feel like the end of the world is at hand. And, while I am moderately concerned about the first, and quite pessimistic about the second, the coronavirus is not the pandemic that will end humanity: not even close. This is NOT to downplay in any way the loss of millions of people around the world; their suffering and that of their families, the economic hardships that will continue to bear down on billions of the global poor, or the exhaustion of thousands of devoted care-givers.
There are many ways in which history can give us a little dose of perspective on our current situation (even with due allowance for past and current statistical deficiencies). The “Spanish” Flu of a century ago has been commonly cited as a precedent for our situation. However, that pandemic killed about 3% of the global population (the equivalent of 200-250 million people today). The Coronavirus toll looks to be in the neighborhood of 1% of that (i.e. .03% of global population), although the impact in South Asia and Africa is still at very early levels. The smallpox which Europeans brought to the Americas in the 15C/16C killed about 90% of natives over a century. Even the famous “Black Death” of the 14C wiped out about 30% of Europeans. So, even if a vaccination shows up in reasonably soon and global inoculation is completed in four years, we are facing a serious, but not species-threatening, situation.
Similarly, from an economic point of view, global GDP looks like it will take a hit of less than 10%. This would push us back to the levels of 4-5 years ago. If the effects were confined to not being able to see the live-action version of Mulan in theaters or missing the 2020 Pantone color of the year in clothing and houseware stores; these would seem like “acceptable losses.” (btw, it’s “Classic Blue”). The impact on hundreds of millions individual workers and their families (as compared with consumers and corporations) is devastating; but the impediments to relief are entirely political at both the national and global levels. The problem, as Shakespeare said, “lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.” The pandemic has presented us with a challenge and we haven’t stepped up.
Finally, statistics. Much could be said here about the numbers thrown at us daily in the media; the marking of mortality milestones: 200,000 Americans dead, 1 million humans dead. Tote boards in the corner of TV news shows. When will California hit 1 million cases? When will India surpass the US as the home of the most infections? Maps with buttons sized to the number of cases or dead in a particular jurisdiction (as if county or state lines mattered).
Little of this is helpful in understanding the actual scope and impact of the pandemic. The virus doesn’t pay attention to borders and population density is crucial to seeing what matters to people on the ground. Local angles are much more insightful than aggregates. Here are a few interesting points that show that the mass media’s reliance on big numbers/raw data is deceptive:
* There are more cases in Guatemala (pop: 15M) than China (1.4B).
* Eight out of ten of the hardest hit U.S. states (cases per capita) are in the South.
* California has 10% fewer cases per capita than the US average, even though it has more cases than any other state (although Texas and Florida are catching up!).
And these are just the reported numbers. When all is said and done, historians of the pandemic will likely see that the death tolls are twice as big as the numbers being reported and that case counts could be off by a factor of 20. So, while I hasten to add that correcting for these problems tempers, but does not undercut my point about historical perspective; it seems likely that the public consciousness of the size of the problem is pretty weak.
If it were merely a matter of getting the record straight, we could let historians sort it out over the next 5-25 years. But the misunderstandings lead to knee-jerk public policy and contribute to the loss of trust in the “system.” More people will get sick and die and more workers will lose jobs as a result.