Monday, January 04, 2021

2020: Pandemic in Review


I teach at the University of Limerick and have a duty of care to my students. At the beginning of 2020 I started hearing about a new virus from China. Students returning from Christmas break were self-isolating and wearing masks where before they weren't. By the end of February I began searching for reports from Chinese researchers. These had been immediately translated to English and published in newspapers for the widest possible dissemination.

For this reason I was the first in my department to signal the arrival of COVID-19, the first to develop strategies (both personal and teaching), and the first to remove myself from campus. At the risk of crying wolf, I encouraged a pro-active approach.

Though I am not a medical expert, I am well-trained in research methods. Indeed, I teach such subjects at university level. So I decided to compile available information from research reports and white papers, so that I could refer interested parties to understandable articles on this blog. This took me many dozens of hours, over several weeks.

The first article was COVID-19 Recommendations and Analysis, published 3 March. A week later, in an effort to show how serious the new virus was, I published COVID-19 Compared to Other Diseases. There were only 4600 dead at that point, but I was taking the virus very seriously. After all, I understand what "exponential" means! The followed article on Government Preparations for COVID-19 was not optimistic.

By April the pandemic was becoming highly politicised. I got caught up in several nasty debates on social media. This made me realise that a significant percentage of people refuse to trust experts. And if they don't trust a medical doctor, they certainly won't trust me. The articles I presented, complete with references, contextualised statistic, and logical arguments were less impressive than a YouTube rant by some idiot.

The reason for this situation is simple. People are scared to death of the virus. But they are spoiled by a life of luxury into not wanting to lose one small bit of their privilege. They haven't lived through a war, been homeless, or been evacuated to a shed on some farm, forced to live like some animal. They haven't had to run from a machine gun ripping through the bodies of their relatives.

Well, neither have I. But the experiences I mention are those of friends and relatives. They are real. I trust them. I have empathy and can extrapolate from one circumstance to another. As I am sure you can, since you have read this far.

But for many people, fear translates into denial, privilege into selfishness.

As we have seen, those countries (mostly in Asia and Africa) who followed the World Health Organisation recommendations have done well, with few deaths and a pandemic under control. Meanwhile, countries in Western Europe and the Americas have done very badly. The result is hundreds of thousands of dead and many more ill. Some of these illnesses will last a lifetime, with follow-on physical and mental health issues.

This was all entirely preventable, if people had adopted a realistic assessment of risks and reacted accordingly. Even now the mistake is being repeated. Over-optimistic faith in vaccines is encouraging governments (and citizens) to forsake common sense for some magical future in which a jab in the arm cures all. Yes, the vaccines will help, and might even be decisive. But only in combination with behavioural changes. Not as a substitute.

COVID-19 is a test run. This virus came to make us aware of what a global pandemic can do. But it is relatively benign compared to what will follow.

Unfortunately the Western world has failed the test. Moving into 2021 it is difficult not to be deeply depressed by this realisation.

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1 comment:

robin said...

Even after writing this article I am likely to delete it, since I am not sure what purpose it serves. It could be misunderstood as being self-congratulatory, which was not the intent. Perhaps it is merely venting. In which case, that is a useful function.

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