Covid-19 reflections II: Knowledge and ignorance

Mike Berger writes on how the pandemic affects us across multiple dimensions

In an earlier post I made the observation that the novel coronavirus pandemic affected us singly and collectively across multiple dimensions. We must continue to explore those dimensions in order to understand and steer the world we live in and are now responsible for.

Besides Covid-19's direct impact on our lives, differing enormously depending on where we live and the resources available to each of us, it has affected the giant web of interconnectivity that has been constructed in the course of the Anthropocene.

That web is not equally strong in all directions but to a greater or lesser extent it both entraps and supports us all. If present trends continue it will get stronger over time with implications we struggle to understand, nevermind control.

One of the paradoxes of knowledge, maybe the chief one, is that as knowledge expands so does ignorance. At first glance one can visualise this as an expanding circle of knowledge bounded by the apparently infinite world of ignorance.

But maybe that is an inadequate metaphor. Perhaps it is more accurate to say we create islands of expanding knowledge within a world of infinite ignorance. Mostly the islands remain disconnected until linked by far-sighted humans. Some islands expand enormously while others remain relatively stunted.

These islands of externally acquired knowledge (and direct experience) are resident in each individual mind but differ enormously in size and content from one mind to another. We each contain our own archipelago of experience and knowledge Thus to use the metaphor in an undifferentiated global sense is an over simplification.

As we link together by nets of information transfer (direct personal contact all the way to impersonal digital communication) the islands in our minds change in size and shape and number. Those isolated from this web are impoverished indeed, though they may share islands not known to the connected.

Metaphors are not knowledge but aids to comprehension. Chasing this metaphor to its limits is an unproductive exercise, but it is worth remembering that information has material consequences and this element may well become increasingly important in a world governed by information rather than brute material facts.

For instance, how do we separate what we actually know about the epidemic from noise, agendas and incomplete knowledge? For instance, the media insist upon talking of aggregated Covid death rates on a daily (hourly?) basis. Yet we know that they differ from locality to locality, from one age group to another and over time, but this is rarely mentioned. It's further complicated by chance and by cultural/religious communities which lead intensely communal lives or don't believe in science or both

We don't even know in many instances whether the presence of the virus at death was causative, incidental or simply a consequence of hospitalisation. We are not given the daily figures from non-Covid related causes but they're almost certainly significantly higher than the viral- related number. Nor do we know how they have varied in association with the epidemic.

Of course this uncontextualised information makes the population increasingly insecure and they turn to the media for enlightenment and reassurance. It does wonders for circulation figures. But it does seem that the modelling has overestimated the actual mortality rates in many instances, even in the best case scenarios.

This is not written with the intent of minimising the medical or wider impact of Covid-19 nor does this make me want run out to hug the nearest stranger. It doesn't, but it does mean that the High Priests of information can be both opaque and fallible.

All we have been talking about here is a small part of the most data-driven and technical aspects of the Covid epidemic: the sort of stuff that get enormous and highly expert skilled attention from a switched-on, geared up scientific-medical complex. There remain many unknowns in this domain that I haven't even mentioned like the patho- physiology of the conditions and how many viruses are needed to reliably cause an infection in different individual - millions or billions - or one?

When one gets to the imponderables, but no less important like what sort of impact the epidemic will have on political, technological and personal behaviours in the post-Covid era, we have little way of answering in any reliable sense. But it is unquestionably important and we should try to shape the future while the situation is fluid enough to respond to inputs.

The corona phenomenon illustrates the immense practical and philosophic issues presented by the increasingly information-governed world through its impact on the material circumstances of our lives. It also demonstrates the tenuous and uncertain nature of knowledge even under optimal circumstances, nevermind the distorting effects of ignorance, prejudices and agendas.

To end briefly on a more immediate, practical note, common sense tells us we cannot remain locked up in our own homes and that a collapsing economy and social fabric will do far more damage than the virus.

Two recent papers, both sensible and thoughtful here and here, discuss the exit strategy. They both recommend incremental and flexible mitigation steps against unrestrained spread plus protection for the vulnerable. But full normal social and economic activity must await herd immunity by slow natural spread , effective and available vaccines and possibly better treatment or, optimistically, decreased viral virulence - or some combination of these.

On-going testing and contact tracing are both part of such nuanced returns to functionality but both are demanding and challenging. Tests come with characteristics such as sensitivity (true positives/false negatives) and specificity (true negatives/false positives.) These attributes are part of the tests themselves and may also be influenced by human and equipment factors.

Contact tracing requires a mix of expertise, doggedness and social cooperation. Incremental and adaptable mitigation measures also requires buy-in and insight. Is the Government and South African society at large capable of meeting such challenges? We will certainly need to harness all the expertise and resources available at home and abroad and exercise the necessary discipline and judgement to achieve the requisite levels of success.

My personal perception is that the South African scorecard is largely positive, albeit with significant gaps and lapses, so far. Lines of communication have generally been kept open, the message has been kept on point and appropriately forceful barring a few lapses. But with the limited information available one cannot know whether we're getting the full picture and I retain considerable reservations around testing and contact tracing capabilities if the rise in infections is to be prevented.

I also wonder whether buy-in or enforcement is going to meet the demands of nuanced and incremental normalisation in a volatile and often lawless society. Success in these endeavours will provide enormous impetus to better post-Covid politics which should also be high on our political agenda