The world was hit by a once in a century pandemic, a virus that was deadly enough to kill millions but innocuous enough to spread easily and widely. We battled to scale up intensive care beds, ventilators, testing facilities. Healthcare workers battled exhaustion and heat stroke in PPE kits. We pooled all our resources in a global effort to develop vaccines. What do you think was the biggest challenge of them all?
Not the challenge of developing a vaccine faster than ever done before, not keeping economies afloat while lockdowns and shut downs ran businesses into the ground. No, the most insurmountable challenge of them all is battling the misinformation sent on WhatsApp by your friendly neighbourhood fake news uncle. The one that sends you good morning GIFs followed by critical pieces of information about the pH level of the virus and how to counter it with warm water and juice that was stirred clockwise three times at noon.
A first of its kind mRNA vaccine was developed in 2 days after getting the genetic code of the virus and deployed in a year after testing, but no one can stop WhatsApp uncle and his fake news. Not all the governments or scientists in the world. No mask can filter it, no air purifier can stop it.
What are the implications? We will probably never reach herd immunity and end this pandemic. Governments are trying to speed up vaccinations but sooner or later, they are going to hit a wall and not have any more people willing to get vaccinated. The fake news virus got to them first and immunised them against the vaccine. Why risk living a long life when you can die early from a preventable disease?
I could wax eloquent about how fake news is fake and the vaccine works, or how you are three times more likely to die from a lightning strike than the vaccine. I could tell you that the last time I checked, the number of people who got the COVID-19 vaccine was twice the number of people who were confirmed to have got COVID-19, but there are zero confirmed deaths due to the vaccine but 2.5 million deaths due to COVID-19. But I’m not going down that rabbit hole, because I am either preaching to the choir or you won’t change your mind anyway. Or maybe I’m only preaching to the choir because you read up to this point and sort of self selected yourself as open minded.
Why though? Why can’t all the science in the world save us from ourselves? The simple answer is user error. Some of you might know the concept. You can design the most beautiful systems, but you cannot design it to get over human stupidity. You can build a quantum computer but it won’t run if the user pulls the plug.
Our society is not just susceptible to this sort of user error, it was built on it. Politicians, religious leaders, cult leaders all control the world because people are willing to disregard reason and believe in whatever they want to believe. Of course it can’t get over itself to fight a pandemic that arrived last year.
If I can distill the problem into its fundamentals, I think you have three issues – the glorification of faith, choosing passive risks over active risks and finally, an inability to understand tail risks.
I was watching the new Justice League Snyder Cut the other day, and there’s a scene where Alfred warns batman not to try and revive Superman from the dead. Gives him logical reasons for how the risk-benefit calculation is overwhelmingly against the idea. Batman’s replies, “Alfred, for the first time in my life, I am operating purely on faith” and goes off on his self righteous mission. You would have seen this trope in countless blockbuster movies. A reasonable hero or heroine finally embraces faith. They say “I don’t know, but I believe”.
I often wonder if this propaganda is deliberate or just self perpetuating. It’s probably the latter, because our society values and prizes faith over everything else. Religions, especially the big monotheistic ones preach unquestioning faith. Other religions or cultures ask you not to question your elders or traditions. Governments function because you believe governments exist. Even the money you use every day works only because we all believe it is worth whatever it says it is worth on the currency note. When governments tell you the value of it has changed the next day, you believe that too, and it becomes so.
This is not to say you should stop believing in the value of money in your pocket, but the problem is that we believe things without ever knowing why we even have to.
People are brainwashed from childhood to have faith. I grew up as a Christian and heard about the virtues of faith in church every Sunday. Priests often spoke disparagingly about doubting Thomas, who incidentally was the one who founded our church, according to legend. The story goes that when Jesus was resurrected and seen by some, Thomas who was one of his disciples, refused to believe it unlike the others. Finally, Jesus appears to him, and Thomas still wants to touch and see if he is real. Afterwards he is sufficiently humbled and chastised for not having believed it as soon as he heard it. Think about that for a second. The moral of the story is that you should believe someone came back from the dead without seeing it for yourself. Do you really expect people who grew up hearing that story to question the scary and convincing WhatsApp forward they received today morning?
We should be telling our children better stories. Of course there are people who grow up religious but still have the sense to know fake news from truth, but that is not because of their upbringing. It is in spite of it. Those people have an admirable talent for cognitive dissonance or double think. They can have faith in one compartment of their mind but be practical and logical in everyday life. It is a complicated type of mental gymnastics not everyone can perform.
If you have to tell your kids about doubting Thomas, talk about how sensible he was. How he avoided being everybody’s puppet by believing anything they said and verified the truth for himself before embarking on a missionary quest.
2. Passive risks over active risks
This one is pretty simple and obvious once you hear it. People are risk averse, but they are primarily averse to active risk taking. Active risks are risks associated with actions you take or choices you make. Getting a vaccine is an active risk, no matter how small. I have heard countless variations of this. “I haven’t got the virus so far thanks to God’s grace, why go and take the risk from the vaccine?”. “I don’t want to push him to take the vaccine. What if something happens and I am blamed?”.
People don’t think much about passive risk – risks you take simply by sitting on your behind and doing nothing. Choosing not to do something is as much of a choice as choosing to do something but most people do not see it that way. If you do nothing, you can blame it on fate, or God’s plan. If you do it, you have no one else to blame and nowhere to hide. And of course we should have faith in God’s plan and be humble.
In my opinion, the government really screwed up by not registering all eligible citizens for the vaccine automatically. It’s fine for them to make it voluntary, but it could have been voluntary in the sense that you could choose not to show up. Then it becomes an active risk people want to avoid. The government enrolled you for it on a certain day and it is on you that you did not get it. Of course this poses some practical challenges in predicting how many people would actually turn up, but I think there are ways to manage that. Most centres treat walk ins and registered citizens the same anyway.
What can you do? Enrol whoever you can among close friends and family. Tell them they can choose not to show up if they are afraid. Chances are most of them will turn up, because it is now a passive risk for them and choosing not to turn up is an active one.
3. Tail risks
Tail risks are risks which have very low chances of occurring but ruins everything if they do occur. Classic example – lightning strike. It’s quite unlikely that you will get hit by one, but it still makes sense to have a lightning arrester on top of your building.
Humanity as a whole is terrible at dealing with tail risks. We mostly just ignore it and hope it never happens. The pandemic was a classic case. Scientists have been warning us about an inevitable pandemic for long. History is full of pandemics that happen every so often and yet we remained unprepared. Since the probability of a pandemic occurring was low in any given year or term of office, no one ever did much about it. And then we suffered for it.
The same thing happens to people in every day life. You put off taking that insurance policy, you do not save money for a rainy day. I’m guilty of it too.
When it comes to the current pandemic, the problem is that this inability to understand or counter tail risks hurt us really bad. It would have been different if the mortality rate of COVID-19 was 80%+ like some other diseases. It is so certain an outcome that it terrifies us into action. But when only 3% die, you can think “oh it won’t happen to me or us. I have faith”. But the problem is, the relatively low mortality rate is exactly what makes the disease spread easily and kill more people. If most people who got it dropped dead, the spread would stop, or we would notice that they dropped dead and hunt down all their contacts. In this case, many people just get a minor illness or stay asymptomatic, so you can never find or stop it completely. More people get infected and more people die in absolute numbers. 3% isn’t that low if everyone gets infected. Think of how many people were in your class, school bus or church and count the deaths. Look at the number of Facebook friends you have and see how many would die if you multiply by 3%.
Yes, most people recover, but you don’t know if you are most people. Just yesterday I spoke to someone who left his job for a year because 11 people in his family got COVID-19 and 3 people died, including his wife’s brother, who must be young.
I don’t know if I have a tip on countering this, but maybe explain the concept, or give analogies like a lightning arrester for the house. But there is an important distinction. This not as unlikely as a lightning strike. It spread from one part of China to every corner of the world. Sooner or later, you will get exposed to it. If you choose not to get vaccinated, you choose to face the disease at some point and pray.
I want to conclude with something I heard in a podcast featuring one of the makers of the Netflix documentary Social Dilemma. We can never spread facts as fast as fake news. I read a study that said fake news travels 6 times faster than the truth on Twitter because fact checking is cumbersome and by definition chases it after the fact (pun intended). The only thing that can move quick enough to counter this threat is culture. We can build micro cultures in our communities and friends circles to value facts over fake news, to be sceptical and ask for proof. You cannot predict the next WhatsApp forward but you can learn to be sceptical of bullshit. You can learn not to believe something just because you want to believe it.
And finally, we can retell the story of doubting Thomas to make him a hero of reason instead of a story of redemption into the way of faith.