This is both a distressing time and an incredibly interesting time to do social research and inquiry. For example, scholars of moral psychology and human groupish-ness can examine new cases such as the splitting of people in different tribes in relation to the pandemic: e.g. folk enthusiastically embracing stay at home orders (e.g. those telling others on Facebook to “stay the f*#k home” and altering their personal profiles to match this) and others who could be loosely classified as ‘lockdown skeptics’. Epidemics are also opportunities for scholars of risk perception and management to examine differential responses to different risks and potentially contribute to COVID-19-related policy making. People in a wide range of fields are exploring what they might be able to contribute to helping to either manage the pandemic or helping to address its social implications. It connects with many fields of inquiry, some of which are being reframed for a new pandemic-oriented context.
Something that I’m finding very interesting is the ways in which the current pandemic appears to be creating some new bedfellows and the ways in which preexisting conflicts appear to be shaping responses to it. Related to this there appear to be some emerging tensions regarding views on the current pandemic and its dangers and social responses to it, such as regarding who is and isn’t inclined to be skeptical about the dangers of COVID-19 and/or the correctness of policy responses (e.g. people who either do or don’t think governments overreacted via full lockdowns) as opposed to focusing on the most at-risk among us. Oftentimes actors on both sides of debates appear to think that the science is entirely on their side, a dynamic I’ve seen in many issues previously. These aspects (and more) connect strongly to my interest in the social dimensions of knowledge practices and partly for this reason I have a growing interest in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic.
Below I discuss some high-level observations of some potentially emerging dynamics:
Strange bedfellows (and some less surprising bedfellows)
Firstly, regarding those who aren’t and are skeptical about the dangers of COVID-19 and the correctness of current policy responses we seem to be seeing some weird informal alliances emerging. Related polarisation can be seen between some scientists (a small minority of increasingly vocal dissenting scientists) who argue the likely consequences of the focal disease ‘COVID-19’ is roughly equivalent to a severe influenza season – or slightly more severe than such an influenza season (e.g. twice as deadly) – and others who argue this is a once-in-a-century pandemic event (the current scientific viewpoint on the pandemic). Related to this, some argue that the jury is still out on what policy response is correct (e.g. link) and that it’ll be some time before a definitive call might be made about this.
On the skeptical side we see an increasing number of conservative commentators on the political ‘Right’ who are wary of governmental overreach and often emphasise the current and potential consequences of current lockdowns (e.g. the economic consequences of such policies). Unsurprisingly, such commentators often also suggest that the dangers of COVID-19 have been overblown and argue that social responses to-date have been disproportionate to those dangers (e.g. see the website lockdownsceptics.org/ run by British social commentator Toby Young). Perhaps more surprisingly we also see an increasingly vocal group of dissenting scientists and medical specialists – some evidence-based medicine scholars, some well-credentialed epidemiologists, physicians, etc – making similar arguments (e.g. link, link, link). The study results they report are enthusiastically taken up by those opposed to the lockdown approach in place in most countries. Indeed right-wing media in the US such as Fox News are giving such research prominent coverage (e.g. link, link) perhaps seeking to support President Trump’s approach to easing lockdowns. Even more surprisingly I’ve also seen some alternative healthcare practitioners (e.g. some naturopaths) – who often are anti-vaxxers – cite the work of evidence-based medicine scholars (people who are their usual opponents) to support their arguments against COVID-19 policies. (Related to this anti-vaxxers in Australia are claiming that COVID-19 is being exaggerated as part of a conspiracy to introduce mandatory vaccinations)
To the extent that these kinds of actors come together to articulate and advance a ‘skeptical’ position on the issue (this is still nascent) it would be a surprising alliance of sorts. In most western countries such as America it appears strongly oriented to conservative politics. Though as others have noted (link, link) distrust or denial of science is often seen as a ‘right-wing’ thing, in this issue they’re prominently mobilising science. As an illustrative example, consider the example of Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson who is a prominent questioner of lockdowns. He frames his analysis as an examination of “science behind the lockdowns” and argues that “we need to change our approach based on the science”.
A related point of contention is what constitutes an evidence-based response/approach. For example, one of the main designers of the controversial Swedish approach raises this aspect. He contends that “one we know, that’s been known for 150 years or more, is that washing your hands is good for you and for others when you’re in an epidemic. But the rest like border closures, school closures, social distancing, there’s almost no science behind most of these”. Whilst some people argue that our recent experience with such mitigation policies provides evidence (which seems quite reasonable to me) others argue we might be prematurely drawing the wrong conclusions regarding which policies made a big difference and why (i.e. which helped to save lives, disrupt disease transmission, etc).
Interestingly, credible dissenting scientists such as John Ioannidis from the Stanford University School of Medicine argue that early projections of lost lives were exaggerations based on unreliable data and incorrect assumptions. Based on a series of studies conducted over recent months he argues that “it’s clearly not the apocalyptic problem that we thought we would face”. (It’s important to note that other scholars have raised legitimate concerns about some of these studies and the associated back-and-forth continues). Such an assessment, if it is confirmed by further studies and the emerging facts, may herald risks to the reputation of some actors involved in health policy and related science. (EDIT [4/05/20]: current data on the infection rate and deaths in New York suggest that the death rate may be roughly in-between the estimates given by John Ioannidis (Standford) and Neil Ferguson (Imperial College London), though strangely Swedish epidemiologists have claimed that their local data shows that 98-99% of cases are very mild infections with many infected people not even realising they were infected. A recent German study suggests the infection fatality rate is likely to be around 0.36%, and perhaps as low as 0.24% – higher than Ioannidis has claimed but lower than previous estimates. The “fog” of the pandemic continues)
Ioannidis has the following to say about the early COVID-19 predictions:
The evidence that we had in the early phases of the pandemic was utterly unreliable […]. We did the right thing to act decisively however many of the numbers that were circulating were based on how many patients we were seeing with symptoms who got tested and then how many of those died. It was possible it was just a tip of the iceberg […]. The original figures that were circulating and were circulated by WHO suggested that 3.4% of those we diagnose – giving them a label of COVID-19 – would die. Of course, this is astronomical risk of death and early mathematical models built on these assumptions or a little bit toned down assumptions but still making astronomical predictions about 10s of millions of people dying around the world – 50 million, 2.5 million in the US – which would of course be a catastrophe […]. However, that’s not true. It is completely off, it is just an astronomical error […]. The best data that we have now suggest it’s not 1 out of 30 or 1 in 100 people who get infected who will die it’s probably in the range of 1 in 1000″ (link)
On the other side of the issue are most public health experts and infectious disease management experts (who often are advising governments and are prominently seen in the media), many science advocates (e.g. the new breed of science communicators and science activists seen on social media), and, in seems, the majority of the public in many countries who have, for the most part, enthusiastically complied with public health directives. (This enthusiasm may be fraying in some contexts). In the Financial Times Jemima Kelly suggests that those strongly supporting the present lockdown approach and “who believe it would be barbaric to do anything other than try to avoid as many coronavirus deaths as possible” are people who “tend, conversely, to lean to the left”. Some lockdown advocates would like to see stronger restrictions introduced that seek to eradicate the virus completely over the coming months (as appears to be a key policy objective in New Zealand [link]).
So, we see a dominant informal ‘alliance’ of public health specialists, related scientists, and governmental actors, amongst others in favour of present approaches to containing and managing the epidemic. On the other side we also see some emerging alliances of actors whose core arguments are that COVID-19 is being exaggerated and, related to this, that existing policies are a mistake. Some are perhaps unsurprising, such as what website Science-Based Medicine terms the “unholy alliance” between “COVID-19 pandemic deniers and the antivaccine movement”; others appear to potentially be strange bedfellows. Rather confusingly for the lay person some well-credentialed scientists are beginning to argue that the current consensus on COVID-19 is wrong and question lockdowns.
Related to this, emerging competing arguments draw upon the increasing data on COVID-19 and its health effects to try to weigh up policy choices in a cost-benefit manner (contrary to a public health focus on preventing disease and death) – i.e. balancing the likely benefits of lockdowns and their estimated costs to society and affected individuals.
Here in Australia this debate looks set to heat up. The Australian Financial Review recently reported that “business leaders are calling on federal and state governments to begin unwinding coronavirus containment measures as soon as is possible in May” (also see here, and here), whereas others wish to maintain them and pursue an elimination strategy. We’re beginning to see much stronger debate about how long to leave the current restrictions in place for, which to potentially remove and when, and what cost is acceptable.
Usual and unusual dynamics and opponents
It’s still early days in the current pandemic, but some unusual and less weird things seem to be emerging as these debates intensify and evolve:
In a broad sense some familiar ‘Left’ versus ‘Right’ dynamics may also be emerging (or re-emerging). Certainly, the issue seems to have become more politicised over recent weeks in comparison to earlier bipartisanship. Others have similarly observed that emerging battles between those who want to ‘open up’ (to use the US term) versus remaining in forms of lockdown seem to be falling along partisan lines. In the US we’re now seeing right-wing groups protesting the lockdowns (e.g. link) and President Trump advocating for the “liberation” of some States. Here in Australia whilst there has thus far been less politicisation of the problem and policy some prominent commentators such as Andrew Bolt are calling on the government to relax the current lockdown and increasingly some columnists in influential newspapers are starting to call for change (e.g. link, link, etc).
Critics on the Right are also starting to make familiar arguments about “so-called experts”, faulty computer models and unreliable data – tapping into and perhaps also reinforcing preexisting dynamics. Influential columnists have begun to making provocative claims about a “Great Panic”. Critics target key modellers like the famous team at Imperial College London, with both other experts and journalists in the media increasingly criticising and politicising their work. I find these trends concerning but also unsurprising.
What’s more surprising and perhaps more interesting is the emerging split between some scientists and experts who think that the dangers of COVID-19 have been exaggerated and that shifts in policy direction are justified (and the associated actors who are promoting their findings) and others who believe it is a once-in-a-century pandemic event requiring an associated response. This will potentially make it more difficult to articulate the basic call to “listen to the scientists” and act accordingly. It also potentially will make it much harder for people on the Left to claim that their opponents are anti-science.
Interestingly, many science communicators and activists, including those associated with skeptics movements, seem to be unmoved by emerging research suggesting that the dangers of COVID-19 might have been exaggerated. This will be interesting to watch, particularly if the evidence supporting a new view of COVID-19 strengthens (though, as I noted above, at this point concerns have been raised about the quality of this evidence).
The intriguing possibility that this potentially heralds – which I intend to monitor – is that natural allies (evidence-based medicine experts, proponents of scientific skepticism and reasoning, and public health experts) may become opponents in the near future.
Another possibility to consider is whether the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic may disrupt (or maybe intensify) the left-right ‘war’ over science that’s developed over recent decades. Lockdown skeptics such as the conservative commentators and groups I noted above appear to be embracing science in new ways to try to bolster their arguments and may, with some justification, be able to claim that their opponents are denying relevant scientific evidence, as opposed to the reverse seen in other issues (e.g. in climate science and policy debates). If this occurs it could be a major shift from preexisting social dynamics, although it could simply also be a more typical case of actors embracing or denying scientific evidence depending upon whether it is politically convenient to do so.