An infectious strain of stupidity

One of the fascinating aspects of the pandemic has been the proliferation and active propagation of stupidity. As individuals, all of us have blind spots and self-destructive impulses. However, as social animals, we supposedly use the wisdom of crowds to temper and control such impulses and compensate for individual areas of weakness. After all, collective wisdom is supposedly how sapiens became a dominant species. This makes the events of the last 20 months counter-intuitive. Instead of collective wisdom, we’ve witnessed collective stupidity. We’ve seen stupidity from the po.....
One of the fascinating aspects of the pandemic has been the proliferation and active propagation of stupidity. As individuals, all of us have blind spots and self-destructive impulses. However, as social animals, we supposedly use the wisdom of crowds to temper and control such impulses and compensate for individual areas of weakness. After all, collective wisdom is supposedly how sapiens became a dominant species.

This makes the events of the last 20 months counter-intuitive. Instead of collective wisdom, we’ve witnessed collective stupidity. We’ve seen stupidity from the po­l­itical leadership of most nations; stupi­dity from the media; stupidity from individuals.  

Pandemics are not black swan events. They’ve occurred through history and prehistory, and they follow repetitive patterns. A new infectious disease appears. It has a significant fatality rate. The healthcare system gets stretched to the limits and beyond as large numbers fall ill. Corpse disposal facilities get stretched as large numbers die.

People isolate while desperately trying to identify how the infection is spread. Every time isolation practices are abandoned and people move back to their normal pattern of existence, there’s another wave of infections.

This continues until herd immunity is reached. Herd immunity may occur naturally when a high percentage of the population has been infected, and either died, or recovered. Or, it may occur via vaccination, which is much less painful.

 
Even if the disease becomes endemic, fatality rates drop, like in the case of the 1918-20 Spanish flu, which is around but not a serious killer any more. Or, the disease may be eradicated, or nearly so, like smallpox, polio and bubonic plague. The healthcare system learns to deal with it, finding drugs that treat the infected and help them recover.

A connected 21st century world should have been well-placed to handle a pandemic. In the last 30 years, there’s been breakthrough after scientific breakthrough, in decoding genomes, understanding them, and splicing and dicing them. This helped scientists sequence the virus, and generate vaccines at speeds impossible even five years ago. It helped identify new mutations quickly.  

We also have an unprecedented ability to instantly disseminate news and advisories via multiple channels like the internet, mobile phones, social media and mainstream media. A large proportion of the workforce can isolate and work remotely. Taken together, this makes it easier to mandate quarantines and lockdowns, and still maintain some level of economic activity.

Our number-crunching resources allow 21st century epidemiologists to rapidly identify regions of concern, to identify new waves at inception, and to generate predictive models reviewing alternative policy actions. That should have enabled policy-makers to dampen new waves even as they arose.

Every country with any claims to modernity also has a public healthcare system, which can treat the infected, administer vaccines and gather data to track hot-spots. That should also have made it easier to attain herd immunity in the least painful manner.

It took epic doses of stupidity to overcome all those advantages and ensure millions died needlessly. One can understand policy-makers were, by and large, stupid in this context. A focus on winning elections and keeping voters happy is not an ideal way to tackle a pandemic. It requires different skill sets to handle pandemics, and win elections (or lose them), and most men clearly don’t possess both skill sets. (Empirical evidence suggests women do, vide New Zealand, Taiwan and Germany).

It also took stupidity on the part of individuals to create a tragedy on this scale. We’ve seen persistent refusals to mask on strange grounds like personal freedom being impinged. We’ve seen refusals to take vaccines, where these are freely available, for utterly insane reasons.

Moreover, politicians with agendas, and individuals with other peculiar motives, chose to actively spread disinformation, and fake statistics. And, mainstream media and social media platforms proceeded to amplify the nonsense, instead of debunking it. Some of the very factors that should have mitigated a pandemic ended up making it worse. All of which goes to show, great stupidity trumps great technology and it makes you wonder about the supposed wisdom of crowds.



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