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The Gift of COVID-19

by Roger Lanctot | Mar 20, 2020

The arrival of COVID-19 is the cure for all that has ailed the world for the past few years. Hundreds of thousands have been infected. Thousands have died. But the sun is shining and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

The interventionist measures taken in response to COVID-19 have been intrusive, annoying, life changing, and potentially fatal. Governments, hospitals and medical professionals have been overwhelmed and will continue to be tested.  But the onset of COVID-19 has been a gift to humanity.

The onset of COVID-19 has restored the respectability of experts and expertise in the face of a multi-year onslaught of misinformation and disinformation in the political and social sphere from individuals spurred on and supported by state actors. This reality is manifest in daily press conferences in the U.S. where the President of the United States is routinely corrected and contradicted by his staff on live television.

These U.S. administration representatives can get away with correcting and contradicting because they have facts, data, evidence, and expertise on their side. The President may continue to prevaricate and improvise when speaking to the public, but the experts must stick to the facts and explain them to the public.

And there is much to explain.

COVID-19 has introduced a daily dose of mathematics into our lives. The much maligned mass media has nearly every information consumer, regardless of political bent, talking about flattening curves, exponential growth, projection, and infection and fatality rates.

Every citizen of the planet has been welcomed into the discussion of testing for the virus, testing for its antibodies, estimating and (more importantly) projecting infection and fatality and recovery rates and debating the efficacy of “draconian” measures. That’s right, we are also getting a vocabulary lesson. Wikipedia tells us that “draconian” comes from “Draco, also called Drako or Drakon, who was the first recorded legislator of Athens.” He replaced “oral law and blood feud” with a harsh (draconian) written code in the 7th century B.C.

This doesn’t mean that all experts reach identical conclusions working from the same set of facts. COVID-19 is unique in the manner in which its unfolding presence across the planet introduces new statistical insights on a daily basis.

Data consumers have a broad smorgasbord of data from which to pick and choose. In this environment, those with the greatest command of the data command the most attention.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health, has emerged as a particularly adept parser and explainer of data. Even New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo has distinguished himself for explaining how the lack of testing is impacting the broader understanding of the long-term implications of the outbreak – an echo of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.”

But the greatest gift of all is that COVID-19 has exposed the vulnerabilities and limitations of politicians who wade into complex social crises with facile solutions and a limited grasp of the relevant data and science. In times of crisis, politicians must turn to the experts to explain to an angst-ridden population what is happening. what is being done in response, and why.

 Dr. Fauci has stepped into that role. He has patiently explained the meaning of newly emerging information. He has described what is going to happen next and why. Perhaps most importantly he has acknowledged the shortcomings and weaknesses of the response to the crisis, in the U.S., thus far.

Even the cleverest politician knows he or she is best off leaving serious matters of public health and welfare to the experts. This doesn’t mean that the forces of misinformation and disinformation have been vanquished or driven from the field.

The debate over the appropriateness of the response to COVID-19 is robust and will remain with us for decades. Even now, as the number of fatalities in the U.S. surpasses 200, with dozens dying daily in spite of “draconian” lockdowns, there are voices decrying the suspension of civil liberties and a media-driven over-reaction. These voices, too, will turn to the data. But their arguments falter when they find themselves somehow arguing that “low” fatality rates are justification for dropping interventions in favor of fostering “herd immunity” instilled by allowing weaker versions of the virus to run wild in the population.

Our COVID-19 civics, math, and vocabulary lesson is likely to continue for many months with experts forecasting multiple waves of infection before more effective counter measures are found. In the meantime, we will all not only gain an enhanced appreciation and understanding of math, we will also be given a vast seminar in the graphical presentation of data.

We are all familiar with data representations and so called “dashboards.” COVID-19 has given the world a template for taking this to the next logical level with global representations of the impact of the virus on social media, economic activity, pollution (satellite imagery), and even the clearing of the waters of Venice’s canals. The single greatest repository of data representations is to be found at Mapbox, where the map data company is collaborating with a wide range of public authorities and media outlets to graphically tell the unfolding story of COVID-19.

Mapbox’s collaborative insights can be found here: https://blog.mapbox.com/notable-maps-visualizing-covid-19-and-surrounding-impacts-951724cc4bd8

To be sure, life during COVID-19 is miserable – and I’m not even one of the tens of millions of Americans in so-called lockdown. I don’t want to know what that is like, but all I have to do is turn on the TV or pick up the phone to find out. People are dying and lives are being transformed.  But COVID-19 is forcing us to focus on the facts and, for that, I am grateful. 

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