Don’t lose ability to rationally assess risk


In our mass hysteria of fear about Covid-19, we have killed so many. FILE PHOTO | NMG

There will be a time in future where we view the lessons of 2020 very differently. For, in psychology, there is a phenomena called mass hysteria. Wikipedia helpfully points out that it is also called mass psychogenic illness, or collective hysteria.

Big and scary names, but a phenomena with many names precisely because people regularly get sucked into it: although never so globally as now.

Because it is: “a phenomenon that transmits collective illusions of threats, whether real or imaginary, through a population in society as a result of rumours and fear,” says our online encyclopedia.

So let’s look at our lives today and some facts. Kenya, like many countries, has had an infectious illness roll in this year that has killed 51 people.

I don’t know to what degree I can believe the medics I have talked to, but I am told that nearly all of those 51 were very sick anyway. One already in intensive care with aplastic anemia, another already in intensive care with HIV end-stage renal failure, and so on.

The doctors say these patients did not die ‘of’ Coronavirus, they died ‘with’ it.

However, information is so hard to get on those deaths. But there are nations that have been sharing information on the ages and other illnesses of those who have died from Covid-19. Thus, in the UK, we now know that of over 36,000 deaths, just 350 were of healthy people under the age of 60.

That’s very few, when an average 600,000 people die every year in the UK from all conditions.

Likewise, the 51 deaths in Kenya are very few. In 2016, alone, 29,000 Kenyans died of tuberculosis, an infectious disease, excluding those who had it linked to HIV: those were the TB-only deaths.

So, realistically, without any loss of rationality or perspective, we should be putting at least 568 times more effort, policy, restrictions, funds and attention into stopping TB than into stopping Coronavirus, right? Because we haven’t lost perspective, and TB kills tens of thousands instead of just tens.

It could be argued and will be that Coronavirus would have killed far more if we had not locked down. But where’s the evidence for that claim?

In Europe, Sweden never had a lockdown, its bars remained open, its schools. In a population of 10 million, some 4,000 have died.

In the UK’s population of 66 million, 36,000 have died. Before some factchecker who isn’t strong in statistics comes after me here, I would say the UK has a population 6.6x the size of Sweden’s, and 6.6x the Swedish deaths equals 26,400, which is far less than the UK’s locked down 36,000.

All have been smaller hits than were taken from several recent flus, and a tiny proportion of all deaths. But Sweden is less infected with no lockdown than the UK after two months of severe stay-at-home orders.

That does not constitute proof that lockdown works. If anything, it shows Sweden is more rational.

Moreover, in our mass hysteria of fear about Covid-19, we have killed so many.

Kenyan medics report that maternal mortality has leapt, as have infant deaths, as the curfew has prevented expectant mothers reaching hospitals in labour, or midwives from reaching them.

We have put thousands of our working class and hundreds of thousands of our daily workers onto zero earnings, raising the spectre of hunger and many other illnesses left untreated.

But it’s rational, we still have to say, because who can admit fear saw them behave irrationally? Those 51 deaths matter more than the 29,000 a year of TB. Because I say so. Because I am right. And facts don’t matter when you know you are right.

In fact, our world has seen plenty of deadly diseases. Ebola was massively scary, one in three died. Even Typhoid scares me.

But Coronavirus kills fewer than 1 in 500, drawn almost wholly from the very old or very sick. It’s safer than crossing the road.

But losing the ability to rationally assess risk isn’t safe. It kills. So how many truly die from this hysteria will be determined by when we abandon it, and return to doing what saves most lives.