Let’s Not Take Our Guards Down
Before you go ahead and read the article, few disclaimers: I am not trying to spread panic (as I was accused of doing so in March). I am as happy as anyone with the fall in COVID-19 cases here, but cannot turn a blind eye to the reality – that it is rearing its ugly head again. The government did extremely well in terms of its COVID-19 strategy but we also got lucky (the role of luck in our life is pivotal and way more than what we understand or try to do so. However, this isn’t an excuse to stop working hard or taking initiative; that is innate, natural and our duty). Finally, now that we have done well, we need to do better and don’t celebrate too soon. COVID-19 isn’t over yet.
I’ll start the article with the mention of the book, A Crisis of Belief. The book maps the Financial Crisis of 2008 and shows, through a plethora of data and unintelligible formulas, charts and graphs, how the financial fiasco was in fact a crisis of belief. Group-think went to a whole new level and everyone misunderstood the signals, even the experts, mostly the experts. The over-representativeness of good news and ignorance of tail risk was the main cause: the moment the tail risks resurfaced, all hell broke loose and there were bank runs. Lehman Brothers, along with many others, had collapsed.
The analogy to COVID-19 is clear. Pakistan was able to contain COVID-19, albeit there was considerable loss which we can’t ignore, and things returned back to normalcy. However, it is exact at this moment that we need to be very cautious (we even have a concept in Economics for it, Minsky Moment – I’ll cover it in my other articles). It if is a pure logical fallacy to think that if we weren’t affected as bad as other countries (however, we should see this on relative levels and we did!), we will once again be able to do the same. It can be even worse, it can be similar or it can be nothing. The question is: why take chances?
Humans are subject to a number of biases, albeit all are quite interesting. Optimism bias is something highly relevant today. This bias shows that people are “unrealistically” optimistic about the future. While being positive is a brilliant trait, a panglossian outlook can put us in trouble. This very bias extends in terms of negligence and downplaying the effect of the pandemic. You will not wear a mask or observe social distancing – why? Because you are positive that it won’t happen to you. Also, I have gathered this on my own that we think of ourselves as something special – in a way that what’s happening to others might not or will not happen to us. Dangerous thinking pattern!
Another bias is the Outcome bias. When due to chance or pure good luck you tend to avoid any accident or mishap, you will underestimate the gravity of the misfortune that was about to befall on you. You will either declare yourself a good driver, if you just avoided a fatal accident, or be similarly careless driving next time – as you now mistakenly believe that you can avoid such situations any time. So for people who argue that they have been going out, socializing, travelling, joining rallies and whatnot, but turned out to be totally safe from COVID-19 – be grateful!
Lastly, please understand the absence of evidence and evidence of absence. When someone tells you that COVID-19 is just a flu or that it isn’t that serious, you should tell them about trans-fats which, in the beginning, were considered harmless or rather beneficial but later on proved to be detrimental to one’s health. There are hundreds of similar examples in medicinal history. There is a difference between absence of an evidence of a disease and evidence of absence of it.
Of course, we wouldn’t behave rationally. We rarely do. But we can at least try. It isn’t only Pakistan but other countries too. Humans are almost the same (in many aspects) whether they come from the Global South or dwell in the First World. It seems the second wave is on its way. Don’t panic, don’t become paranoid. But don’t be foolishly brave either. Our plans can wait. We just need to make sure that we will be here!
The writer is a freelance journalist. He is an editor at an European digital magazine and a commodity analyst for various media outlets.