The Covid Papers,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
CloudsandClocks.net | Oct. 7, 2020