Beppe Colli:
The Covid Papers, pt.2

By Beppe Colli
Oct. 7, 2020

First week in February or so, while having a look at the New York Times I happened to read about a new, mysterious epidemic that appeared to be spreading in the Chinese city of Wuhan. Since I found such news to be quite worrying, I decided to investigate the topic.

A few weeks later, I was told that there was some truth to the matter, but that the epidemic appeared to be mainly confined to that region, so, not too much to worry about. But what I read in the New York Times (I'm a subscriber) in the previous weeks spoke very differently.

At this point, I have to admit that my recollection of the chronology of these facts is not too precise, nor I thought at the time that one day I would be writing a piece about this. But just a few weeks later, the newsstand I visit regularly morphed into a kind of battlefield, with more than a few people calling "a coward", and worse, those who kept on worrying about the stuff - i.e., me.

"XX, the head of the department of Infectious Diseases at the hospital YY declared that this is not different from the usual flu, so there's no reason to worry about it. Stop this act of terrorism!", a doctor I know shouted in my direction - while wearing no mask, of course. "Think about how many old people every year get the flu, then get pneumonia, and then die!"

What was the source that the head of the department of Infectious Diseases at hospital YY had consulted? We still don't know. (He's also the doctor who, with the passing of time, went to declare that "the virus is now weak", "has become more gentle", "is not to be considered much to worry about anymore", every time quoting unspecified "international studies".)

As a term of comparison, consider this: on October 3rd, Anthony Fauci said that "the virus is still mysterious; we are particularly worried about those cases of inflammation of the heart that occur in people two months after they cease to be positive".

I think it could be said that, about a decade after the Great Economic Crisis that occurred in the United States (we still recall Lehman Brothers suddenly going belly-up, those clerks leaving the building in such a hurry while carrying very large boxes) and then infected the whole world, the Covid epidemic is pushing us to revise our knowledge, and to think very hard about what sources of knowledge we depend on. An issue that becomes more and more important in an age when "social media" become more and more influential with the spreading of cheap broadband connection, and the crisis of what we used to call "the Press", be it in its paper form or online.

While being very important for a variety of reasons - among them, those negative consequences when it comes to the rate of unemployment that are still felt so deeply today - the "Crisis of 2008" was the perfect occasion to test economic theories, the kind of "natural experiment" that occurs in real time. Those theories were hard to understand, those graphics quite complex. But Paul Krugman astutely noticed that, while in the past brilliant scholars would test their hypotheses, and then write a paper for their colleagues to "peer review", the outcome later appearing in serious scientific magazines - the process could well take a few years - nowadays the Internet, the existence of scientists' blogs, and the sheer computing power of today's machines, all make it possible for scientists to test models and theories, so fine-tuning the potential solutions that later get examined by those in power.

If the manner the debate is conducted is logically sound, if it's well documented, in the end it's "quite easy" to understand. There are still traces everywhere. I recently consulted two articles by Paul Krugman about the aforementioned crisis. I still remembered the "Sugar!" part - this was Tim Geithner's (then Treasury secretary of the Obama administration) opinion of Christine Romer's idea of having a much larger "economic stimulus" in order to alleviate unemployment. (Just a few days ago I read for the first time an article that appeared in 2011 in the Washington Post which talked about this.)

The difference between what at that time I read in the New York Times and what I read on a few Italian papers I had access to couldn't have been greater: here, things appeared as "murky", and I often wondered whether those journalists dealing in those matters really had done their homework while studying at their university. My impression stays the same when going back in time: about 70s stagflation; Paul Volker's expansionary policy, which made "Reagan's prosperity" possible; Clinton's expansion (which was longer and more benign than Ronald Reagan's); the problem of the Federal deficit; and so on.

It's not my intention to turn a world-scale problem into an Italian matter, especially given the fact that English is the only language I understand in a somewhat satisfying way, hence by necessity I totally ignore what gets written in other languages.

Every time Italian newspapers consults serious scholars of whatever matter, things go smoothly.

But many times "important journalists" write about "nothing". So, it often happens that articles and columns appear bearing the words "behind the scenes", "the point", "analysis", above pieces that are quite "ghostly". What could be possibly said that's serious in an article commencing thus: "There are faint rumors that the secretary of the party maybe confided to just a few of his most trusted collaborators (...)".

The obvious consequence is an ongoing dumbing down of a paper's readers. Try this: After a long and bloody battle, Donald Trump makes a more moderate Presidential speech. Says the reporter: "Having arrived at the top, Donald Trump understood he had to tone down his quite extremist tone in order to speak to the center of the Nation (...)". A few days later, Trump makes an extremist speech yet again. Says the reporter: "While talking to the center, Trump understood that he had to give a strong sign to the right-wing part of his electorate that asks for those promises he made during his campaign to be kept (...)." And on and on, everything gests explained, just... the day after the event. (There have been cases when one dies, and his articles are made into a book.)

I have to admit that the only Italian newspaper I know in depth is la Repubblica, of which I've been a reader since 1978. Had I to describe its content in the period preceding the paper's recent changes, I'd say: "40%, political doggerel; 30%, culture, here mainly meaning: books; the rest, a smorgasbord". Reading the paper, somebody who ignores the first thing about Italy would think that Italy is a country populated with hordes of readers - for the most part, however, being fans of fiction books, something that in my opinion is bound to make one highly suspicious.

As a dramatic consequence, every time a problem appears on the horizon, the paper interviews... a writer of fiction. From terrorism in France to all things Brexit - be it political, social, or economic - the majority of the international phone numbers the editors appear to have in their databases are of writers of fiction. Economists, sociologists, scholars of politics, only appear every once in a while. But lotsa fiction writers, who appear to "know the human heart quite deeply", so having "the pulse of the Nation". Funny thing, most of the time these writers have a book about to be published, most of the time to appear in Italian language.

It has to be noticed that - despite the many columns about the various sides of sex appearing on the home page of its website, acting as "clickbait" - the Guardian "prints" quite a lot of rigorous stuff. I mean, as a term of comparison by now it should teach us something. The New York Times is in a different world.

Once in a while it happens that I'm asked about my preferred sources of information. My answer: a local newspaper; a national newspaper; the Guardian (I'm not a subscriber, but every year, at the end of the year, I make a donation); and the New York Times (I'm a subscriber).

I'm sorry to say that, but quite often I'm told: "Eh, you're so lucky, having the chance to read so much stuff". While there's no need for me to talk about the most miserable and vulgar aspects of this matter, I'd say it's painfully obvious that most people really don't get the most important part of the argument: that it's not how many articles one manages to read, but how much money one manages to spend in order to keep the source of those articles - which one hopefully regards as independent, competent, and honest - afloat.

There's no need to talk about "perfection" - the Guardian's music criticism is often repulsive, halfway between The Wire and The Face, with a pinch of ideology that rivals Italian "leftie" daily newspaper Il Manifesto from those long gone days (I haven't read it in ages, please accept my most heartfelt excuses should it turn out they have finally managed to find their sanity). But if it's Brexit or Covid we are talking about, knowledge and skills are not journalistic qualities that can be located at the moment of an emergency. (It has to be noted, though, that when it comes to Labour, the Guardian often offers "eight different opinions", but one could still regard this as "a pluralist newspaper's duty to offer a wide variety of opinions". Olé!)

Money matters a lot, of course. When Donald Trump won the last presidential elections, the New York Times - having been quite certain of Hillary Clinton's victory, the paper had thought about a "business as usual" scenery - had to invest one million dollars more, and assign five more journalists, presto!, to Washington. As of today, six million subscribers make the US daily paper relatively assured of its destiny, even if the economic crisis originated by Covid has cut into the ads revenue.

Once in a while I think about the by-now-famous "infectious bat that escaped from Wuhan's secret military laboratory, to contaminate the whole world". I have to admit that the number of stupid things I heard about Covid is quite low. How come? I never watch TV, I have no idea about how to access Facebook and Twitter, I'm very careful about those I talk to. I know I'll never be able to understand the greatest part of available knowledge, I just try to understand the proper way of understanding.

For reasons I've never understood, most people consider "understanding everything" a given; also "talking about anything" without having the slightest idea what they're talking about. Many people can't even argue logically, given to the illusion that a pseudo-explanation based on circular reasoning can hold water.

We remember dialogues such as "Why is the sea stormy today?" "Because Poseidon is angry". There's nothing wrong admitting that our knowledge of the world is not necessarily much better than what the Greeks possessed. Thanks to scientific and technological progress, and to social differentiation, anybody can benefit from most recent social goods.

If I want to know how long will it take for the Covid vaccine to be developed and given to people, I consult the New York Times and the Guardian, having already clear in my mind those technical aspects concerning trials, approval, manufacturing, and giving it to the whole world population. Which could take years. So I don't get headlines such as "Vaccine coming in November", "Vaccine to be here before Spring", and the like.

In parallel to what happened with the "Great Recession" post-Lehman Brothers, the problem presented by Covid offers us an opportunity to a better scientific understanding (and for a closer integration of many different nations).

Today, science is the most verifiable and self-correcting type of knowledge we have at our disposal. Those qualities are not necessarily a given when it comes to scientists, who can well possess those unenviable traits - such as vanity, envy, and dishonesty - that are common to people in any given profession.

Unfortunately, the sound criteria that are at the basis of science are totally opaque to those who believe that "every opinion possesses the same amount of dignity". Hence, the obfuscation of what makes us regard an assertion as "well-founded".

For decades, talk shows have made people possessing the most disparate ideas quarrel and shout in order to get an audience. I was recently told that, alas!, competent virologists were seen quarrelling on the small screen, with no benefit for science. National newspapers, considering a discussion based on ponderation as "boring", have offered a microphone to anybody who had a mouth. Quite often, one had the feeling that while interviewers had prepared some questions, they really had no idea whether the answers were sound, or even logical.

I happened to see some mediocre figures in the local paper, getting their share of the limelight after lives that one can easily guess were not so bright. (It was one of the few times when I really wished for the last local newspaper to go down.)

On paper, it's entirely possible that the type of knowledge that's necessary to prepare the counter-attack on Covid (which is not, by far, the most dangerous virus among those capable of making the jump from animal to man) will silence for a certain time the Babel of languages "all possessing the same degree of dignity" that have been widespread on a mass level for several decades, with the complicity of those doctors who - having taken the "Hypocrisy's Oath" - prescribe homeopathic remedies and supplements to all.

Things could turn very badly, though. Panic on a mass level, political "astute plans" going wrong, blind commercial instincts whose negative consequences we could maybe fail to counterbalance in due time, there's a lot that could make everything go towards disaster.

A couple of weeks ago, William Hanage, professor of evolution and epidemiology of infectious disease at Harvard, wrote an article for the Guardian - Britain's failure to learn the hard lessons of its first Covid surge is a disaster - expressing his preoccupation for the inadequate way Britain is fighting the Covid epidemic, reminding us that - as it's perfectly normal for a disease that we know better with the passing of time - the true list of symptoms continues to grow. (So, it's not like the usual flu!).

But we have to always keep in mind that shooting the breeze at the local bar is not the same as attaining scientific knowledge, a fine example being an article by Melinda Wenner Moyer - Biden tested negative. He could still have the Coronavirus - which appeared a few days ago in the New York Times.

Two important passages: "Negative tests are tricky in part because of the issue of timing. After people are exposed to the coronavirus, they incubate it for several days before testing positive or showing symptoms". "There's virtually no chance a test will work in the first day or two after exposure, when the false negative rate is really high - somewhere between 60 and 100 percent".

Which is something quite different from saying "He tested negative, and then he infected everybody".

© Beppe Colli 2020 | Oct. 7, 2020