Expressions of fear, uncertainty and doubt in the COVID-19 crisis

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I have not written anything for this site for a long time, but today I feel I have to. There is too much fear, uncertainty and doubt being expressed about this crisis, and being expressed with a certitude that only ignorance knows well.

In South Africa, we have five levels of ‘lockdown’, starting with level 5 where basically only essential workers are allowed out except to shop or seek medical attention. Just over two weeks ago we moved to Level 4, where a few more businesses are open, and we can exercise in the morning. On Thursday, President Ramaphosa announced that we would move towards Level 3 gradually towards the end of the month. Some movement has already been made, with the full opening of eCommerce and deliveries.

COVID-19 has created a world of experts about that of which hey know not.

I hear a lot of people moaning about how we are handling the COVID-19 crisis, or how government is handling it specifically. They say things such as “the government’s phased exit from the lockdown is nonsensical and unscientific.” Then they offer a plethora of very contradictory alternatives based entirely on opinion and little, if any, knowledge.

The thing is, the arguments made by such opinionistas is also “nonsensical and unscientific”, and more so than government’s. You could make the same argument each and every alternative you could come up with, no matter what it might be. We don’t know, and we don’t know what we don’t know, opinion based rants not withstanding.

When you are charged with making the best decision that you can, and you have insufficient data on it, then you have to SWAG it. SWAG (scientifically-based wild-assed guess) is the best you can do. That is all you have. So arguing one SWAG is better than another SWAG or ill-informed opinion is what is actually nonsensical.

A good element of the S in SWAG is the precautionary principle. It emphasizes caution, pausing and reviewing before leaping into doing things that may prove disastrous. As with any situation where the there are many unknowns, and an unknown number of unknown unknowns, with a few things that are known or can be deduced, the precautionary principle should apply.

We can recover from anything except death. So the fundamental right that needs protecting is the right to life. It is on this basis that the precautionary principle must be formed, and elaborated into actions. That is not to say that there aren’t other important things. Another risk that is best addressed through the precautionary principle is the risk of overwhelming health care systems, and creating even more hardship and economic loss than a controlled approach would produce.

The five levels of lockdown in South Africa are a SWAG largely based on the precautionary principle, and those levels need to be adhered to. To throw caution to the wind now would be a fundamental departure from the precautionary principle. Despite the arguments of people who say things like “people are starving, the economy is failing”, there is no way to know that the same would not be true if we threw caution to the wind and listened to the prevailing rants. We don’t know. None of us do. The ranters don’t know. I don’t know. You don’t know. When something is not known, it is not known, and uninfluenced by the strength of somebody’s opinion.

For all the experts on the unknown, and the unknown unknowns, who regularly pronounce opinions on that of which they know not, I would say thank you, but no thank you. I have been there before, and I have seen the results of not following the precautionary principle and the results have not been optimal by a long shot. When I urged the Canadian minister of fisheries to apply the precautionary principle back in the mid 1980s, he refused. He said there was no evidence of danger. Unfortunately, there was evidence, but it was out of step with the political expectations of the day, and the result was the total collapse of the largest fishery in the world, and the hardships that followed.

I understand people are upset, and things are not being done perfectly, but perfection does not exist in the human world. Set aside perfection and admit not knowing. If you really are as perfect as you think, you should be willing to follow the best option for what to do when you don’t know the answers, and you also don’t know what you don’t know.

For the ranters, how do you know that — if the lockdown is lifted and COVID-19 cases skyrocket, the healthcare system collapses, and the health of the population collapses — the impact on the economy won’t be worse and that more people won’t starve. How do you know this with such certainty that you can assert with confidence that we are doing it wrong? The answer is you don’t, so let’s beat this virus using the best scientifically based method we have, the precautionary principle.

Let me repeat that: the answer is YOU DO NOT KNOW. NOBODY KNOWS. So until we have solid evidence that your opinion is the right one, the precautionary principle is the best we have out of a bad lot. And following the phasing out of levels is the best way to adhere to the precautionary principle. Everything else is wishful thinking.

If you don’t get this, I suggest watching some YouTube videos on risk, and obtain a YouTube PhD in the principles of risk.