Opinion – Out of the fog

The COVID-19 epidemic occupies the news space overwhelmingly. Inevitably, perhaps: it is a new disease, and its spread is a clear and current threat. But it may take months, if not years, before a careful combing and analysis of data from all over the world can provide a more precise view about many issues raised by the epidemic. Even what we think we already know may require further calibrating and adjustment. We need time and experience to consolidate our knowledge and develop tools to deal with it.

The massive media coverage does not always make sober judgments easier. While we are all submitted to a surplus of news and data, that is not making us all necessarily more knowledgeable. A lot does not always equate with good or helpful information. Real news pops up with both pseudo-news and outright fake news, whether simply uninformed, ill-informed, or deliberately malevolent. They mix in more or less strident ways in proportions that are not always easy to determine. 

Let us start with the figures. No newspaper or broadcast fails to tell us about the total numbers of infected, dead, and recovered. Most analyses on based on those figures – and yet they are highly unreliable and hard to compare. First, different countries are in different phases of the spread of the disease and present quite distinct demographic and social profiles. Second, they may use different criteria to define and account for those categories. Even within the same country, criteria have changed over time, as the disease and circumstances developed. Using them alone to compare countries and also the evolution within countries is an intellectually precarious exercise. 

Further, most of the infected people appear to do without or with very mild symptoms. Many may require no treatment or be misdiagnosed. Data on testing procedures reliability and coverage are, at best, patchy. We are trying to calculate lethality rate using a mostly unknown denominator which possible value may fall within a vast range. That makes ithighly prone to wild guesses, misplaced alarms, when not deliberate manipulation.

Nothing of this means we shouldn’t care. But it suggests we should learn how to deal with that uncertainty and look beyond today. No bouts of anxiety, often based on a terrible combination of ignorance and groundless fear, will help us find sensible paths out of the current predicament. As we must, with and notwithstanding the disease.