December 31, 2021, by Brigitte Nerlich
Pandemics, time and learning
I was reading a thought-provoking article by Katherine J. Wu, Ed Yong and Sarah Zhang in The Atlantic, entitled “Omicron is our Past Pandemic Mistakes on Fast-Forward”. As a metaphor-collector, I loved the first paragraph – which was all about speed:
“With Omicron, everything is sped up. The new variant is spreading fast and far. At a time when Delta was already sprinting around the country, Omicron not only caught up but overtook it, jumping from an estimated 13 to 73 percent of U.S. cases in a single week. We have less time to make decisions and less room to course-correct when they are wrong. […] We keep making the same pandemic mistakes over and over again.” (Wu et al., 2021)
This literal and metaphorical talk about speed made me think about time and pandemics.
Time and learning
The Covid-19 pandemic has now been raging for two years (at least in some places), so long in fact that some children born at the beginning of the pandemic are now entering their terrible twos – and many adults feel the same. It’s been a long time, and in that time a lot of life-times have been extinguished.
For those of us still living, that long time has, or should have, afforded a lot of opportunities to learn, especially from spaces and places that have managed to stop pandemic time and restart normal time.
Learning is based on making mistakes, looking back on them in time and trying to avoid them in the future. That is the ideal at least. As Wu and others, like Philip Ball and Helen Branswell, have shown, this learning process is not happening. One reason might be that we have a tendency to frame things in ways that impede understanding.
Understanding a pandemic depends on understanding two entities: viruses and people. Since the beginning of the pandemic that understanding has been shaped by metaphors. Two important metaphors have been that of war, a war between viruses and people, and that of a race, a race between viruses and people.
Waging war on the coronavirus was supposed to give us time to find solutions for ending the pandemic, or, if that was not possible, to, at least, buy us time to keep the health service going and give science time to do its stuff. We used partial fixes, like lockdowns, until better ones became available in the shape of vaccines. While a lot of time was wasted, especially in the UK, in waiting for the ‘right’ time to implement lockdowns, vaccines were invented in record time. That was great. So all should have been fine in our race with the virus – we should have brought the “pandemic to a screeching halt” (Wu et al., 2021).
The speed with which science has come to understand the virus and applied this understanding to create vaccines and medicines has been astonishing. What about understanding people? They seem to have been overlooked by the politicians that are supposed to care from them. We need to think beyond war and racing.
Here in the UK, politicians have tended to focus on the virus and the vaccines rather than the people who not only need to be protected from or protect themselves and others from the virus but who also need clear and timely communication; who need support with isolation; and who need financial support. With this support missing, the virus had time to evolve and to undermine some of the benefits afforded by vaccines.
We also tended to focus on the present, rather than learning from the past to prepare for the future. This is particular bad in the current situation when we are confronted by Omicron, the “swiftly shape-shifting” virus (Wu et al., 2021), which was very quickly characterised by scientists in South Africa. Again, science was fast, but what about politics?
Omicron is, as Ewan Birney points out, “fast transmitting (like Alpha and Delta), a potent combination which led to doubling rates of every 2 to 3 days; 10-fold in a week, 100-fold in 2 weeks. Case charts leap up as Omicron hits a country”. Cases “skyrocket” (Wu et al., 2021)…
Confronted by this variant, governments have reacted in different ways, with the UK government, or rather the English government, staring at the virus in the shape of its data shadow like a rabbit caught in the headlines… and waiting. Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid talk about ‘watching’ or ‘monitoring’ the data. That’s fine. But it seems they want to watch the data until a time when the data are bad enough that even this government is forced to react.
This ‘policy’ gives people Christmas and the New Year, but also gives free reign to people and the virus to move fast and far. And while politicians are waiting to act (because that’s what some of them think is best for them, in the name of the people), the virus is running ahead of people, faster and faster, and time is running out, yet again, faster still. One can’t win a race while standing still.
While I was writing this, I glanced at Twitter and saw this tweet by Lindsay Broadbent: “‘After all of the information you’ve received today, the decision you’re making is to sit tight and assess?’ – Don’t Look Up”. This quote from a recent disaster movie sums things up nicely. What will the future look like in a situation in which a government doesn’t look up, I wonder, for both the virus and the people?
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