Pandemic Lessons for the Future (open thread)
On the fallacies and pitfalls that have hampered our response, and how we can learn from them to do better in the future
For the Atlantic, I’ve written an article on five key fallacies that have hampered our response to the pandemic. I have focused on pitfalls that did not originate solely from the meddling, negligent and malicious actions of our misinformer in-chief (though that, of course, played a role) but things that were broader, deeper and pertained more to our sociological, institutional and historical dynamics.
Specifically, I focused on the following: A misguided tendency to see moral hazards and risk compensation when there wasn’t any reason to worry about this and ending up with paternalism and mistrust; providing rigid/binary rules rather than explaining mechanisms and empowering the public with information and giving them better intuitions about transmission mechanisms; a scolding/shaming dynamic in media and social media that arose from understandable human reaction but ended up both hampering our response and also erasing many of the victims of the pandemic; not discussing the inevitable and difficult trade-offs within a framework of harm reduction and the downsides of the ensuing absolutism; and the balance we did not strike well between emerging and prior knowledge, uncertainty and action.
The article concludes by explaining how all this is still playing out in how we’re rolling out the vaccines, and how we should learn from all that has happened and how to move forward.
I’m going to experiment with a thread here that’s open to everyone—not just to subscribers—to discuss the full article which can be found here.
Five key fallacies and pitfalls have affected public-health messaging, as well as media coverage, and have played an outsize role in derailing an effective pandemic response. These problems were deepened by the ways that we—the public—developed to cope with a dreadful situation under great uncertainty. And now, even as vaccines offer brilliant hope, and even though, at least in the United States, we no longer have to deal with the problem of a misinformer in chief, some officials and media outlets are repeating many of the same mistakes in handling the vaccine rollout.
The pandemic has given us an unwelcome societal stress test, revealing the cracks and weaknesses in our institutions and our systems. Some of these are common to many contemporary problems, including political dysfunction and the way our public sphere operates. Others are more particular, though not exclusive, to the current challenge—including a gap between how academic research operates and how the public understands that research, and the ways in which the psychology of coping with the pandemic have distorted our response to it.
Recognizing all these dynamics is important, not only for seeing us through this pandemic—yes, it is going to end—but also to understand how our society functions, and how it fails. We need to start shoring up our defenses, not just against future pandemics but against all the myriad challenges we face—political, environmental, societal, and technological. None of these problems is impossible to remedy, but first we have to acknowledge them and start working to fix them—and we’re running out of time.
I look forward to questions, comments, objection, examples and dissent!
I am a person who works at a health department. I agree with all these points -- as do many in my office. But we are so hamstrung by the lack of any power or ability to do things. For political reasons, we cannot provide any support essential workers. For political reasons, we cannot keep the schools closed. For political reasons, we cannot contradict the CDC.
I read this whole article and I feel ashamed and sad to be part of this fucked-up response - but the only other option is not being part of this response, so.
I think there's been a repeated "you can't handle the truth" approach to public health communications which has really contributed to public skepticism. See: "masks don't help" when it could have been "Some people need masks more right now, and we're not sure..." I'm so frustrated by the ... I'll say misinformation .. around the amount of vaccine doses and when they'd be available. V-E (vaccines for everyone) day was never coming until May or so, I'm not sure why this wasn't made more clear. Also, there's something I've called data idolatry before. Yes, RCTs are the only way to be sure about a scientific fact, but in life, you often have to make the best call you can with the (incomplete) data you have. It might very well be a good call to postpone second doses in order to get single shots in arms before new variants arise. We don't have conclusive data on this yet, but we have pretty good data, and we shouldn't dismiss it.