Your opinion does not matter

Far from being ‘all in it together’, it’s increasingly obvious that Covid-19 is the latest in a series of polarising events that pitches extreme opinions against each other, while a mass of people in the middle roll their eyes, roll up their sleeves, and knuckle down.

During lockdown, every anti-vaxxer and Covid denier has been matched by a curtain twitcher taking note when a neighbour ‘bumped’ into a good friend on the daily solitary walk. The sort of moral black hole of an individual who bought a fake facemask-exempt lanyard on eBay has his mirror in the visored, gloved and gowned individuals I sometimes still see peering down a supermarket aisle, a look in the eyes that says STAY AWAY FROM ME.

Elsewhere, parents who once shared laughs outside school gates are instead arguing on WhatsApp groups over whether schools should be sending so many children home when cases break out, or whether tea towel philosophy proposes they should give a collective ‘namaste’ and simply Keep Calm And Carry On™️.

Despite the UK’s declaration of war on experts a few years back during the unpleasantness of Brexit, there seem to be lots more experts around ever since those bats found a comfortable roost in Wuhan’s wet market. Everyone’s an expert nowadays.

There are certainly many more epidemiologists on Facebook than I ever imagined, while I never knew so many people had cousins who are public health experts. Twitter is awash with numbered accounts distilling their scientific wisdom in 140 characters. A quick search on YouTube reveals a multitude of paunchy men called Barry expounding their theories about the New World Order, filming themselves on street-market walleted smartphones, Dobbies loyalty cards prominent as they thrust their opinions at viewers from the passenger seats of cars parked up in lay-bys used by doggers during lunch breaks.

Where were these individuals before Covid, and who knew they were so knowledgeable? Why have so many backbench MPs kept their command of disease emergence, distribution and control hidden from the electorate to date, masking their knowledge with anti-EU dogma? Who knew that B-list actors had such expertise in microchip technology? Where did has-been Indie pop icons gain their knowledge of the 5G radiowave spectrum and its effects on human physiology? And how did so many newspaper columnists of advanced years fit their nightschool pharmacology studies around the day jobs? Did I miss the Herd Immunity lessons at school? Everyone else seems to be well-versed on the subject. What did I miss while I struggled with maths CSE?

“Nobody knows everything”, William Friedkin famously said of Hollywood. Lord, if he had only lived to see the annus anus that was 2021. Because while the healthcare and scientific professionals — alongside many others – that we have come to rely on these past months can stake a claim to expertise, it seems that those shouting the loudest to be heard in the debate around Covid-19 are anything but experts.

Worse, they are morons. Friedkin would have been truly appalled at their insistence on sharing their ignorance. Lord grant me the confidence of an armchair epidemiologist lecturing a Professor on Twitter on how immunity really works.

No, if you want to know how immunity is gained through vaccination, here’s a handy cut-out-and-keep-formula. While being a litmus test of whether you have the upper ground in an argument, it also shows in mathematical terms how much of a population must be vaccinated to achieve sufficient immunity that a disease wanes, and is built around the particular efficacy of a specific vaccine.

Actually strike that, because it’s better presented as the following:

Obviously, this improvement is because (…flicks between browser tabs…) “R(t) < R0 in most cases, because of immunity and control measures.”

Now, I stake no claim to mathematical competence and freely admit to the use of copy and paste in the previous sentence. The article itself is here and is well worth a read because the author is a Professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. He is also the Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

Importantly, he is not Barry of layby YouTube fame, and I could not detect an obsession with the Magna Carta, 5G and lizard overlords in the Professor’s social media feeds. In other words, he is an expert. So while the maths is beyond me, I’m willing to listen to the Prof, not Barry. His opinion counts, unlike Barry’s. The latter’s has no value, makes no sense, and causes damage by spreading misinformation.

What about those experts who take a different point of view about lockdown, I hear you ask? Should they be listened to? And, if so, why have they been ignored? Good points. Expertise allows for differences of opinion. But a national response to a pandemic is as much based in politics as it is science. And that makes things considerably more difficult.

Here’s one take on the long-term impact of the pandemic. The polarised debates that existed well before Covid-19 have only grown wider, more spiteful and less likely to be resolved through reasoned debate. This will only continue as opponents gather around similar issues until the Venn diagrams of their intersected preoccupations become fully rounded and impossible to square. There are lots of angry people out there, and I'm not sure we, or they, know why.

Far from bringing the world together in a common cause, we now disagree about whether the disease ever existed; the degree to which it presents a threat; and whether society should be free of measures introduced to manage the pandemic but which, of necessity, curtailed freedoms.

Of most concern is the fact that this chasm of opinion makes a global response to the challenges we now face wholly inadequate. At the same time that many still refuse vaccines, the new Delta variant is driving an increase in cases of infection. Even if this results in lower hospitalisations in vaccinated populations, the disruption to daily life is massive. Governments, meanwhile, are ditching social distancing guidelines and sanctioning pan-continental sporting events for 20,000 people at a time. Yet many warn that the world will never get back to normal until enough of the globe is vaccinated. However, the richest countries in the world are unwilling to share their surplus of vaccines with poorer countries. So there’s that.

IMHO we should get used to Covid being around for a long time yet. Which means the continuation of social distancing measures, however unpopular and uncomfortable they may be. But it also provides plenty more time for Barry to share his “opinions”. If only they mattered.

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James Tate

James Tate

27 Followers

A pick and mix of words; now online, better packaged and more expensive, like everything post-COVID. The sour cherries are best. The opinions are my own.