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  • stephen schecter

Observations on the Pandemic (II)

Statistics. We keep reading about statistics, but not being epidemiologists, we are at a disadvantage trying to make sense of them. Even epidemiologists, I suspect, are having a difficult time, but that is more because they do not have enough reliable ones. One confusing statistic is the mortality rate for Covid19. I keep reading and hearing that this mortality rate is higher than that of the flu. But how do we know that? Is the mortality rate based on the number of deaths as a percentage of the number of infected people? If so, how do we know how many people have been infected? The data from China are completely unreliable. If the Chinese Communist Party suppressed information about the virus for a month, that means many infected people were wandering about undetected, both in China and abroad. Those cases will never be included in the count unless they get so sick they come to the attention of medical authorities. Which points to another problem. Many people who are infected never come to the attention of authorities because their symptoms are so mild.


In so many countries testing started late and even when it got ramped up, how do you test the entire population? People test negative one day, then show up positive days later. There seem to be only two reliable statistics: the sick who wind up in hospitals or otherwise come to the attention of medical authorities, and the number of corpses. The latter is even more reliable than the former because it is almost impossible to hide a corpse, except in countries like China and Iran and Russia, where people disappear as a matter of routine policy. All of which makes it difficult to know exactly how lethal the Covid19 virus is. Which is important, because, as the President of the United States has suggested, perhaps it is not worth shutting down an entire country and ruining the economy for a virus that kills less people or not more people than the annual flu. Mr. Trump’s doubt has been echoed by others, including health professionals. Which is not to say that the doubt is right; merely, that it ought to be considered, especially when you see that in a country like Italy they are running out of coffins.

On the other hand, what we do know is that in every country where the virus is detected there is a rapid rise in new reported cases within a short space of time. The curve of quickly reported cases increases exponentially over a short period and it is this fact which drives the policy for isolation and social distancing, which in turn closes a country’s economy down. The concern is not only that hospitals and medical services will be overwhelmed if the number of seriously ill requiring their help all arrive at once, but also that other ill people in dire need of attention will not get help either: patients with cancer, heart strokes, life threatening injuries, to name a few. Overwhelmed health services mean not enough doctors, nurses and support personnel to treat non Covid19 patients requiring care, and not enough beds, equipment, and drugs to do so as well. In Italy health professionals were already triaging services to Covid19 patients. One can well imagine if such triaging had to be extended to the general population. Given that scenario, one can well understand the concern of public health authorities to promote policies designed to avoid such an event. The risk of such a possibility overrides the concerns about closing down the economy, even if not all the statistics are there to clinch the argument.

Governments here are dealing with probabilities and risks, fueled by data at the disposal of experts that permit comparisons to past situations and estimates of likely futures. That is what modern democracies have to deal with; governments making collectively binding decisions to deal with anticipated risks, understanding that no one gets credit for avoiding a disaster that does not happen. Although the well-being of their constituents who are also their electors is the aim of their policies, their constituents may not see things in quite the same way. From their point of view, narrowly selfish as is quite understandable, they may simply react with anger and vituperation at what they may label bone-headed policy. I have already seen twitter feeds lambasting the government for shutting down Canadian society while allowing First Nations bands only a short time ago to block rail shipments with impunity. People, in the language of sociology, good sociology that is, are the internal environment of the political system, but even if sovereign in political theory, they are not the people who decide, nor are they usually privy to the complicated processes involved in deciding on behalf of everyone. Which means they do not usually see all that goes into making those decisions and making them effective. The people have the luxury of ingratitude even when they benefit from those decisions. But their ingratitude is not without its part in the casual comedy, for how would the government know where to intervene without it?

The Canadian government has announced an $82 billion emergency package to help individuals, families and businesses to weather the storm during the coronavirus crisis. Among its provisions is a payment of $2000 per month for the next four months for people unable to work for various reasons due to the coronavirus. The system to enable these payments would be up and running within two weeks, the Prime Minister assured Canadians. Already reporters raised questions about why the government did not simply pay the money to businesses to keep workers on their payroll, as German and Danish governments were doing, and also about what people were expected to do in the meantime. The Prime Minister of course responded that the government would be monitoring the situation and modifications would ensue as needed. Remarkably, not a word was mentioned about how detailed the emergency package was or how many different situations were taken into consideration in developing the different kinds of assistance. Nor was mention made about the incredible relative speed with which such complicated assistance programs were being put into place so that money could reach individual Canadians within weeks. It was the Prime Minister himself who had to refer to the countless public servants dragooned into accomplishing these tasks under conditions of risk to their own health. Such reactions are typical of the welfare state, which is the name given to functioning democracies in modern society. What better confirmation of the relative cognitive blindness most people wear when discussing how politics works in such societies? And what better illustration of that blindness because of the position different actors hold in that process and the stories they tell themselves about their respective roles: the press as watchdog, the people as entitled beneficiaries who pay their taxes?

But I am a sociologist, a retired sociologist, who spends his time, especially in the time of self-isolation, watching all this and thinks somewhat differently. I am struck by the diversity of the people and situations the government has thought of in drawing up this package. Even the plight of prisoners was raised in the Prime Minister’s press conference. I am also struck by the expertise that was required to devise and implement the plan, an expertise that cannot do without mathematics and statistics for things to run properly. Which is exactly how most things work in the welfare state. Bridges are built that do not fall down. Airplanes fly without falling from the sky. People go out to eat and do not die from food poisoning. None of this happens on its own, though all of it is taken for granted, only to be revealed when things go awry and demands for inquiry and accountability ensue. And all this happens because this is how democracy functions. Paradoxically. Because the people are included in the political system as they are in every other social system, even as they remain their internal environments. Unlike aristocratic society, modern society excludes no one. Even the people who drop out do so by living inside it. The homeless. The rebels. The kooks. They simply become one more social or interpersonal problem that eventually works itself onto the nightly news and the public agenda. Which is why all those intellectuals worrying about inequality and exclusion as the major issue and fault-line of modern society are dead wrong. Modern society thrives on difference and gobbles up every new one as quickly as it appears. The New York City official website lists tens of acceptable pronouns by which people can be addressed or identified. Non-gendered bathrooms are cropping up as fast as ecological urinals. Democracy thrives on difference and has done so for centuries now, even if the differences have taken time to emerge and be recognized. And none of this is possible without the expert systems that make it happen. If there is a problem, surely it is one of overload. And management of risk. And the application of intelligent observation in the selection of options when faced with decisions in times of crisis. Exactly as the crisis that confronts us with Covid19.

What helps in times of crisis is good governance. Good governance, to the extent that it is there, is more likely to arise in democracies than in other forms of government. Compare Italy to Iran. Compare Israel to Syria. Compare Canada to some of the African governments the Canadian Prime Minister has telephoned because he wants a seat on the UN Security Council for Canada. Good governance thrives on the irreducible difference between a sovereign people that does not make decisions and a government that does but is beholden to the people because the opposition will otherwise clobber it at the next election. But even the opposition needs good governance to deliver on its promises. Even the opposition has an interest in dampening down human passions, because rage and ingratitude are always lurking in abeyance waiting to be mobilized. The people are already in permanent opposition to their democratically elected governments. They do not need sociologists to fan the flames even more, especially when fanning the flames only adds fuel to a fire that is of little use.

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