Creating pandemic confusion

Friday, 6 November 2020 00:25 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Since last Friday, reported cases have fallen, and Colombo has trailed Gampaha on two out of the three days, and the parts of Colombo that were open have not been infiltrated from any reporting we’ve seen. And instead of explaining, or setting some threshold, or providing reassurances, we are back into a ‘quarantine camp’ with all national focus going into ‘locking up’ and distributing food rations, at a time when the economy is imperilled, and the very fragile recovery that was being mounted, will be undermined – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara

Jeffrey Tucker of The American Institute of Economic Research sums it up: “Instead of dealing rationally with a textbook virus, as we had done during the whole of the 20th century, we embarked on a new social/political experiment in lockdowns. We attempted to intimidate a virus with PhDs and political power, hoping that it would shrivel and die, and in so doing dramatically disabled human freedom and social functioning. What do we have to show for it? Massive carnage, and a virus that is still with us.”

And so, the President here in Sri Lanka, rightly just announced (and I trust with his leadership, action will flow accordingly), we cannot sanely stay in lockdown until COVID is eradicated or ‘defeated,’ we must return to normal life within the best guidelines for managing the virus and ultimately emerging from it, that we can locate. 

He referred to the plight of the daily wage earners. That is acute, but so is the impact on SMEs, businesses and sectors and host of business and personal interactions, crucial to Sri Lanka’s development and future. Hence this last week was just bewildering.

A sane, successful national strategy for coping with C-19 was announced and administered for weeks in Lanka. It was fact-driven, zonal, targeted, and left as much of the economy and people’s livelihoods alone, able to at least modestly ‘function’ as possible. The death register has barely moved by any regional, much less global standard, so we hardly had an out of control situation factually, other than the ‘optics’ of positive test cases.

As we went into the last Poya weekend, we were repeatedly reassured, the Western Province curfew would only be three days, not to panic buy (as that congestion would help spread the virus), not to travel (as this was for a limited period and so no one need dart out of the Western Province). 

Local Police consulted in other provinces clearly had received the same guidance, and were adamant no such extensions were forthcoming, much less restrictions on inter-district travel. As of Saturday, our highest officials in the papers and on television assured that there would be no extension, if anything, previously shut down areas would be re-evaluated and opened where possible.

Then in a shocking reversal, late Sunday, oblivious it seems to the impact on credibility, people’s viable functioning who relied on the repeated assurances, a one-week extension was imposed, as if the sky had fallen. No rationale given except that they looked at cases, especially in Colombo.

However, since last Friday, reported cases have fallen, and Colombo has trailed Gampaha on two out of the three days, and the parts of Colombo that were open have not been infiltrated from any reporting we’ve seen. 

And instead of explaining, or setting some threshold, or providing reassurances, we are back into a ‘quarantine camp’ with all national focus going into ‘locking up’ and distributing food rations, at a time when the economy is imperilled, and the very fragile recovery that was being mounted, will be undermined. 

In the entire month since 5 October, nine ‘barely’ COVID ascribable deaths, lots of recoveries, and uncertain PCR tests with unknown ‘false positive ratios,’ defective machines and more. Surely, we have to look at what really ‘imperils’ this nation – arguably being shutdown repeatedly due to mass testing divorced from symptoms and fatalities, or even the unsubstantiated national ‘spectre’ of COVID.

And why not continue with the data-driven, targeted, approach which everyone can understand, ‘circuit breakers’ adjusted on facts not panic?


The COVID communication playbook

Sadly, globally, once this crisis was underway, behavioural psychologists worldwide suggested overlapping guidance to governments to facilitate compliance. The acronym used is called ‘MINDSPACE’ and it stands for:

  • Messenger – draped in regalia and authority
  • Incentives – Offering panaceas or ‘alleged’ avoidance of losses that will otherwise befall
  • Norms – Influencing through ‘mass appeal’ through what others do
  • Defaults – Creating pre-set options that create a ‘flow’ of actions and directives.
  • Salience – Leverage what is ‘novel’ and how it is ‘personally relevant’
  • Priming – Subconscious cues (graphics, slogans, repetitive messaging)
  • Affect – Emotionally galvanising actions
  • Commitments – Links to wide-scale public promises
  • Ego – Making people feel better about themselves for going along

With experience, the four most potent were re-organised into a more portable, manageable mnemonic: MEAN (Messenger, Ego, Affect and Norms). Let’s take a closer look at this approach to panic seduction.



Ensure ‘messengers’ of whatever has to be relayed clearly have ‘authority,’ evidently magisterial titles, uniforms, other trappings of medical or other authority. So if a medical authority can terrify us with predictions, then the Government can follow with additional restrictions. 

Front-line responders who are justly revered, to be frequently showcased alongside official mantras. Around the world, ‘spokespeople’ on media are mobilised who have regional accents, are highlighted to be of various ages, and from various socio-economic groups.



Since we tend to cherish cultivating a positive view of ourselves, congratulating ourselves for our sterling citizenship and ethical standing, such communiques can take advantage of what in psychology is called a ‘fundamental attribution error,’ where we take credit for good outcomes (whether we had anything directly to do with them or not) and blaming others for bad ones (there must be someone ‘guilty’ out there). So we are ‘pushed’ or at least ‘nudged’ to comply with official edicts by having this urge comprehensively exploited.

With a global media slavishly dedicated to further adding to their coffers, the message is ‘panic’ followed by ‘virtue’ for ‘complying’: Save lives; protect loved ones; keep your country safe. Of course the fact that people have to earn a living, educate their children, provide care to family, or just exercise their right to prudently be alive, is swatted out of consideration.

In parts of the world, people self-righteously congratulated themselves by whooping, clapping, clanging pots, in support of front-line care staff and those risking their lives, almost swooning in mass recognition of their own virtue for doing so. ‘Don’t kill grandma’ becomes a way to push people to stay away, keep sanitising, and wear masks even if in an empty outdoor space where bird poop is a far greater risk than C-19.

And this way with ‘fundamental attribution,’ any downturn or upsurge will be blamed on those who clearly do not follow this new evangel to the letter, and any improvement will be a sign that our nauseatingly broadcast ‘virtue’ helped save the world, despite data from around the world, showing regimes with vastly different ‘prescriptions’ having done pretty much as well as each other, particularly given the almost ‘prosaic’ reality of actual C-19 impact versus the Dante-esque ‘hellscape’ being painted and projected by various official alarmists and their acolyte ‘modellers’.



Psychologists also remind us that our current emotional state significantly influences our mental processes and behaviour. ‘Mood congruence’ leads us to notice and remember those aspects that are most consistent with that mood. So in a state of relative euphoria, I remember my past victories and successes and cherished moments, and find it easier to generate positive expectations of the future. When I’m sour and dour, I revisit an inventory of my flops and failures, and consider with gloomy chagrin my future prospects. 

By extension, if we inject fear, people will import past fearful experiences, or disasters, or project future threats flowing from this in the same vein. In the UK, SAGE’s psychological panel stressed the need to heighten the ‘perceived level of personal threat,’ using ‘hard-hitting emotional messaging’ to essentially jolt people out of any complacency.

A slew of ways present themselves. First, the flashing of statistics out of context (death meters, victim count, never comparing with other causes of mortality, or deaths caused because of lockdowns from other untreated or ignored illnesses). When death numbers inconveniently kept falling, the narrative shifted to hysteria about ‘cases’ (positive test results posing as cases rather).

Footage of people dead and dying was another tactic, patients gasping for air in Lombardy, coffins being prepared to pile up in NY mortuaries, replete with scary slogans suggesting COVID could strike anywhere.

Masks have degrees of utility, and there is considerable controversy, based on warring data, as to the efficacy (Norway has some of the best stats in the world, no mandatory mask requirement, Sweden ditto, as also US states like South Dakota), and while some masks are ‘germ factories’ and inhibit breathing, rather than arguing for masks that ‘work,’ a ‘face covering’ no matter how flawed gets you a virtue ‘pass’.  Policy makers do not seek to quality control the use of these, as the psychologists say the ‘symbolism’ of unity, compliance and allegiance is what matters most.

Then there is data delusion. Ask most people and they think this pathogen is killing people exponentially. Well, it’s not, even where there was community spread, which of course, we seek to avoid. Fatality rate if WHO forecast of 10% of humanity infected is accurate, is a mere 0.14% globally, flu levels. 

Elsewhere, based on known fatality rates, and if you ‘trust’ the death stats as literal (despite all kinds of issues as to how COVID deaths are ‘categorised’), globally it falls to about .03%. If that’s the case, legions more have been infected, and have recovered, and we are far closer to immunity than we might think. 

But as long as people think, through a numerical sleight-of-hand, that 40,000 ‘cases’ say (positive test results actually after a massive ramped up testing campaign) equates somehow to horrifying mortality (it doesn’t, note the infection fatality rates estimated above), leads everyone to treat those they encounter as potential biohazards. Remember, 60 million die globally of various causes naturally, COVID’s toll of somewhat over a million, even if truly all ‘from’ rather than ‘with’ COVID while certainly sobering, provides no grounds for existential panic.



A hefty dose of peer pressure completes the package. So we make this ‘mainstream’ or present it as if it is, so deviancy can be pressured into acquiescence. Social distancing exaggerated with silly floor markings that ‘tell’ you where to stand as if it’s some exact science, travel restrictions, size of gatherings (again, under 50, or under 20 are fine, but stipulating ‘6’ is just absurd). 

Add that, and compulsively sitting away from each other, and telling everyone to stay ‘safe and well’ and ‘pretending’ all of this makes sense, when we cannot even simply answer what we do when the next pathogen or any crisis where we are not ‘totally safe’ next comes along. 

This then means we all participate in a mutually-reinforcing hypnotic dance. And ‘masking’ here again becomes a badge of compliance, especially when you see some sad soul walking by the shore in blustery weather, hanging on to this utterly (in that situation) unscientific and pointless symbol of subservience.


The ethics of this

The utilising of covert influencing tools globally has proliferated and seeped in everywhere, quite apart from efficacy. People are dying in their own homes, are too scared to take themselves or their children for screening, to accident and emergency care, all this is undermining mental and emotional wellbeing, escalating suicide rates… all of these are currently difficult to quantify but are evidently substantial. Fear inflation as a way of eliciting compliance has catastrophic implications.


Back to Lanka

I’ll say it again, Lanka was winning by any global standards, with this current cluster or otherwise. We are now told the numbers have come down, as if that happened, because of an initial three-day curfew, when incubation periods are much longer. We are told because of actions taken, community spread has been arrested. Again, those actions were the careful, data-driven, contact tracing and zonal limited shutdowns, not the sudden mass suspension of life for a few days.

Moreover, we still have uncertain ‘positive tests’ posing as cases. With test accuracy stated as being around 70% a few weeks back, with the clearly low prevalence against the overall population despite the mass testing, the ‘legitimacy’ of any test is also mathematically very uncertain (I wrote about this and explained this a few articles back, but it is the simple realisation that low prevalence of the virus, injects ‘false positives’ on more and more ‘uninfected’ people, skewing completely where we think we are). On this basis, even with ‘zero’ C-19, you would still show ‘infected’ people in perpetuity! 

We need to pull out of this zero sum game fast, before the fragile recovery we were enjoying goes skidding off the cliffs as we chase a ‘phantom menace,’ leaving us quaking due to 23 ‘purported’ COVID deaths (each one tragic and needing to be mourned) against 12,000 dying each month from various causes. 

We cannot ‘order away’ a virus, and we cannot premise responses based on hysterical exaggeration of likely danger and impact, when the opportunity cost has to do with economic and social viability not only in the short run, but the sheer sustainability of our capability to operate as a functioning country and community.


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