Thursday, 23 April 2020

The rule of groupthink

The populist grunters on Twitter are trotting out the line that lockdowns don't work, should be lifted as soon as possible and herd immunity is the only way to get through this. As ever they are not thinking. Before the government officially announced a series of measures over a number of days, a number of large venues were cancelling events while universities were already taking unilateral decisions to draw down face to face teaching.

At this point we didn't know much about the virus: how deadly or how infectious and had no reliable data and to a large extent we still don't. Had there not been a lockdown the media would have been screaming while employees would be bombarded with requests for leave as individuals took their own precautions. Any company choosing to remain open would have major PR problems and possibly even face vigilante attacks. No British government could be seen to be sitting on its hands as the death toll shot up which was always going to be severe in a city like London. Even the suggestion of herd immunity caused a wave of revulsion as people largely took it to mean what the government meant, ie let everyone catch it.

Within a couple of weeks we'd be seeing mass panic, especially since the government had elected not to do contact tracing. This mass panic would see a sizable proportion of the public going into voluntary lockdown, which of itself whacks profit margins. Then you'd have a rapidly overrun NHS adding to that panic where schools would close of their own volition, taking parents out of the workplace, and pretty soon you have half the country in self-isolation.

Anyone still defying the public mood would then be facing accusations of putting profit before safety, which would have the unions up in arms while the opposition has a field day. Not putting some form of lockdown in place is not politically viable. The government had to do it just to bring a sense of uniformity and coherence, slowing the spread somewhat, buying time to collect data, understand the issues and formulate a longer term strategy. Without that coherence it becomes as much a public order issue as it is a health issue.

As regards to herd immunity without a vaccine, with a virus we still don't fully understand, with all manner of lasting after effects, such a policy is highly reckless.

So what about Sweden? As explored previously,  country comparisons is comparing apples and oranges. Every country needs its own approach befitting its culture. I can't speak about Sweden  but the UK national debate is highly polarised, stoked by the media, and culturally we are risk averse. We have to look at how people behave in each set of circumstances. In any case, demographics, population density and topography make direct statistical comparisons meaningless and even inside the UK the figures are distorted by way of the huge cultural and economic disparities between London and the regions. As regards to the more liberal approach in Sweden, the jury is still out, but they are leaving it to chance. Sweden is likely to be the beneficiary of measures taken by its immediate neighbours.

As to lifting the lockdown as soon as possible, that will likely see a second surge requiring further lockdowns, unless we get good at containment by way of contact tracing and selective quarantines. This lockdown needs to last as long as it takes to deploy and refine a test and trace regime that has never before been attempted.

On the matter of the economy, there seems to be the belief that the do nothing "herd immunity" strategy is consequence free. It isn't. In any case, trade and movement restrictions stay in place between countries (particularly air freight) which causes supply chain problems that mean a lot of businesses can't operate normally anyway. Not particularly helped by panic buying either. In short it's a giant shit sandwich and we all have to take a bite.

In my view the lockdown could have been avoided had our planning and timing been up to scratch but since we missed the containment window, we don't have much of a choice until we can ease our way out of it. The populists argue that this virus is no more deadly than the flu. This is clearly not the case. We can all play cynical games with statistics but ultimately the nature of this virus means it has the potential to kill more than Ebola because it has a larger infection pool.

It's not surprising that the "herd immunity" grunters cross over with hardline no deal Brexiters. The populist mindset, addled with conspiracy and suspicion, spoofed toxic propaganda and fake news, continually believes there is a hidden agenda and that their "common sense" trumps expertise. For sure there is disagreement on how to proceed between experts, and the strategy is as much political as it is scientific, but right wing populists can always be counted on to dispute virtually anything for any reason if it suits their massive superiority complex. It's always grunty middle aged men and frumpy Tory women who continually assert that their total ignorance is equal or better than professional judgement.

To some extent our expert class has brought it upon themselves by way of their professional misconduct during Brexit, demanding that a constitutional issue was a purely technical question that ordinary people weren't equipped to consider, and couldn't be trusted to vote the right way. They themselves have brought expertise into disrepute. As with climate change they will always sing the song of their funders, meaning they are instinctively not trusted. Like the boy who cried wolf, now there is a wolf, nobody is listening. There is also the malign influence of the media which is a whole other essay.

There is then the politics of it when the progressive left favours the word of international bodies no matter how corrupt or incompetent, while the populist right mistrust all government but especially any entity above the nation state level. The populist right doesn't just want to leave the EU and UN, they actively seek to destroy them regardless of the consequences. Consequently they will disregard anything said by the WHO or EU, and the moment they see what their domestic political opponents are saying, they will automatically assume the extreme opposite narrative. This is not in any way driven by rationality on either side.

As with everything else the truth is somewhere in the murky middle, buried under a mountain of partisan propaganda, struggling to get an airing with audiences lacking the time, attention span or background to absorb what they need to know, so will instead look to persons of prestige as recommend by opinion gatekeepers in their own tribe. We therefore have a debate where nobody can be persuaded of anything because holding the party line always comes first. To do otherwise is to invite ostracism and since most people are cowards they'll do or say whatever is expected of them - even if it kills them, which in this case, might just do that.

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