By Benito “Ben” L. Teehankee
The Coronavirus has made many of us very afraid. Our fears are justified. While not enough is known about how to deal with the disease, the online Department of Health (DoH) COVID-19 Case Tracker reported on April 30 that we already had 8,488 confirmed cases of the disease, 568 deaths, and 1,043 recoveries. As the cases and deaths continue to rise, we all hope that the government and health authorities can find manageable solutions soon and that the people affected by the lockdowns will have the support and patience they need to weather this catastrophe.
But what could make the virus pandemic even worse than it is? What can spread faster than the virus through personal contact, online, through the airwaves, by print or even by social media? What can make perfectly reasonable people do extremely unreasonable things? It is the mental and socially transmitted “virus” of uncritical or, simply, bad thinking.
We fall into bad thinking because of wrong assumptions about how people get to know things. We might think that numbers always make for better information or that claims are truer the more people make them. Such assumptions short circuit our thinking process in ways that lead us to false conclusions very quickly without us knowing that we’re doing it. And because we are unaware that we have caught the bad thinking virus, we generously pass on our “knowledge” as misinformation to others since we think we are doing them a favor. The recipients go on to spread the misinformation to others, too.
Government leaders, law makers, business owners and heads of families need to make decisions to protect the lives of those who depend on them while helping the latter cope with terrible economic and social disruption. The quality of decisions they make depend a great deal on the quality of information they have. They may think they are making good decisions on the basis of sound knowledge when they are actually making things worse for the very people they are trying to help.
During the pandemic, we have been flooded by impressive number claims and statistics in ways we have rarely seen except, perhaps, during elections. This is pushing our quantitative intelligence to its very limit. On March 11, before our government first put Metro Manila under community quarantine, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States, testified before Congress about COVID-19: “…this is ten times more lethal than the seasonal flu. I think that’s something that people can get their arms around and understand.” Although Fauci qualified his statement because the limited data available to him at the time made it impossible to get a valid estimate of the death rate, his “ten times more lethal” phrase became one of the most quoted portion of his testimony because it was an easy number to grasp and remember. Nevertheless, it had no basis.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Director of the Program on Medical Outcomes at Stanford University, explained: “If I get the infection, how likely is it I’m going to die? That number depends on knowing how many people have had the infection — not just actively have it now, but have had it and recovered from it. If 50 times more people have had the infection, the death rate could drop by that same factor, putting it somewhere between ‘little worse than the flu’ to ‘twice as bad as the flu’ in terms of case fatality rate.”
The problem with Fauci’s estimate is that there was hardly any COVID-19 testing being done among the general public at that time. This made it impossible to know the proportion of the public who had had the infection — a number that was necessary to properly estimate a death rate. Bhattacharya recently conducted a study in the Sta. Clara County in California by testing over 3,000 people and estimated that there were 50 to 85 times more infected people than the county had reported. If the study turns out to be accurate, the death rate for COVID-19 will be much lower than Fauci’s estimate. We definitely need such a study in our country. The DoH does not currently report the number of COVID-19 tests being done in the country which leaves us all in the dark about the general rate of infection and the death rate.
How can we inoculate ourselves against the spread of the bad thinking virus? Our most basic defense is what we learned in school — thinking scientifically. When someone makes a claim, let’s analyze it critically while we decide whether to accept it or pass it on.
For example, many people claim that a vaccine will be ready in 12 to 18 months. With so many COVID-19 vaccine projects now going on, this may just be possible. But since a vaccine has never been made generally available to the public in less than that time, this is quite an optimistic claim that we need to be cautious about.
What about the six feet social distancing rule we are asked to follow? Research shows that cough vapor can travel as much as 12 feet and farther, depending on air conditions. It is prudent, therefore, to stay even farther away while scientists confirm the causal mechanism of how the virus spreads through the air.
At the risk of sounding rude, we would be wise to question anyone making a COVID-19 claim: Is that the case? Who said so? What is the evidence? When anyone claims to know how COVID-19 affects our bodies, we can ask the same questions plus a couple more: How does it happen? What is the causal mechanism?
While we wait for treatments and vaccines, guarding against misinformation is our best chance to thrive during the new normal we now find ourselves in.
This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or the MAP.
Dr. Benito “Ben” L. Teehankee is the Jose L. Cuisia, Sr. Professor of Business Ethics and Head of the Business for Human Development Network at De La Salle University.