The role for today’s armchair epidemiologists
Brandon Sun, February 1, 2021 - David McConkey
How many new cases were
there today? How does Manitoba’s positivity rate compare to
other provinces, to other countries? How many people have now been
vaccinated? During this pandemic, we find ourselves asking questions
about new concepts like Code Red, herd immunity, variant strains,
bubbles and “flattening the curve.” We have become armchair
epidemiologists. And that’s a good thing.
No wonder we eagerly read about the pandemic. We are naturally concerned about suffering and threats to our health and economic security and to that of our families and others.
Citizens are challenged during this time. We are required to obey the laws and public health regulations. We are morally obligated to act with kindness and courtesy when interacting with our fellow citizens. We are obliged to be responsible in our consumption of – and participation in – media. We need to be careful of what ideas we spread on social media and not contribute to what has been labelled an “infodemic.” And we must nurture our own mental health. No surprise that too much surfing the net for dreary news is known as “doomscrolling.”
We lay people also have a responsibility to be skeptical of what our government leaders and health experts tell us. We have seen where we have not been told the truth about another health crisis, the illicit use of dangerous drugs. We were falsely assured for decades as our leaders pretended to know what they were doing and that the war on drugs was working.
And the experts have sometimes been less than honest with us during this pandemic. At first they told the public that we didn’t need to wear masks. This advice was not because of a concern for our health, but because of their concern that the public would buy up masks ahead of health-care providers.
In trying to see a bigger picture, I benefited from reading Apollo's Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live. The book is by American physician and sociologist Nicholas Christakis. Of course, changes are happening so quickly that the book has been partly outpaced by events. But Apollo's Arrow excels at providing a background to the nature of pandemics and humanity’s response to them over the centuries.
One thing I learned from the book is how public health measures like better hygiene contributed much more than medicines and vaccines to defeating diseases such as measles, typhoid and scarlet fever. I wonder if a fuller understanding of this would have better prepared us earlier on to adopt behaviours like wearing masks.
The book’s title recalls an ancient Greek myth. The god Apollo shoots an arrow that lets loose a plague among the people.
The experience of this pandemic highlights the importance of science and expertise. A Globe and Mail investigation noted that Canada had developed a world class pandemic monitoring system in the 1990s. Then the Harper government downgraded the role of scientists and the Trudeau government accelerated that process.
“Canada unplugged support for its pandemic alert system [in 2019],” the newspaper reported. “Experienced scientists were pushed aside, expertise was eroded and internal warnings went unheeded.”
When the pandemic started, Canada was caught flat footed. Our health officials at first told the public we had nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, other countries – like Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Thailand – were already taking action against the new disease.
One big problem is that the pandemic puts pressure on folks from several directions at once. The editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, Paul Samyn, last week described the stress he is experiencing from personal as well as workplace anxiety. And covering the pandemic story has meant contending with both conspiracy theories and the arrogant attitude of Manitoba officials towards the newspaper.
“That's why talk of fake news surrounding COVID-19 has been so infuriating,” Samyn wrote. “That's why those in power taking shots at the questions we ask, the accountability we seek, the headlines the public deserves, has been so frustrating.”
Yet as overwhelming as the pandemic is, we must remember to consider other issues as well. During 2020 there were about 800 COVID deaths in B.C. But deaths from drug overdoses in the province were 1,600.
During a pandemic, citizens face great challenges. Citizens must be respectful but skeptical of our political leaders and health experts. Citizens must be on guard against hoaxes and conspiracy theories. And citizens must seek out a larger perspective and support varied sources of information, including libraries and investigative journalism.
That is quite the role and responsibility for today’s armchair epidemiologists.
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