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Home >Opinion >Columns >Covid has shown how little expertise many of our experts have

Heroes, we know, are often ordinary people doing extraordinary things when faced with challenges. In the same spirit, I would like to propose that most experts are people who explain why something happened only after the event has occurred and bodies are being counted.

A plague of experts is upon us. Describing an aristocrats’ ball in Damsel In Distress, PG Wodehouse wrote: “A half-brick, hurled at any given moment, must infallibly have spilt blue blood." Similarly, our experts are a dense mob on social media, judging by WhatsApp forwards. We are all statisticians, even if we have no idea why a mean is not a median. Wodehouse, by the way, was stating a statistical probability of 1. We are all epidemiologists too, even if we think that R0 has something to do with RO water filters.

As soon as the second wave of covid began in India, ‘experts’ were going hoarse about how the government should have seen it coming. None of these town criers had predicted a second wave. But once it happened, the outrage bandwagon went high-decibel.

Among those who shot to fame in the early days of the first wave was Dr Ramanan Laxminarayan, who predicted 3-4 million deaths by August last year. After India failed him on that, he apparently lay low for a few months, but his views were resurrected by Western media as soon as the second wave struck. Ramanan’s current focus is an Indian Council of Medical Research antibody survey that found that for every registered covid case, there could be 34 more.

Actually, the survey results indicate that for every official affliction, 34 others got the infection, most of whom must have developed immunity and gotten well by now, without some perhaps even realizing they had been infected. Our hospitals are no longer overwhelmed. So, while Ramanan seems to see the country teetering on the edge of doom, the immunity gains are good news. But he and the journalists quoting him so gleefully seem unduly invested in an India-is-a-hellhole story.

In February 2020, the world’s best-known corona warrior Dr Anthony Fauci dismissed the need to wear masks. A few months later, he claimed that he had never said that masks were useless; he had only asked the public to not buy them so that medical workers had sufficient supplies. At best, this is deceit; at worst, cluelessness.

For more than a year, Dr Fauci fed the narrative that the covid virus was natural born and not a human-manipulated one that could have originated in Wuhan’s virology lab. Much of the American media played along. So did scientific journals like Lancet, which rejected papers that argued that the proteins in the virus looked suspiciously unnatural.

Today, now that the lab-leak theory is mainstream discourse, Dr Fauci admits that he never had enough information to rule it out. Yet, he had been messianic in promoting the theory that the virus jumped from an animal to humans directly, even though not a single animal had been discovered with the virus. Meanwhile, The Washington Post has changed the words in a February 2020 article. The line “[Republican senator] Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus conspiracy theory that was already debunked," now reads, “Tom Cotton keeps repeating a coronavirus fringe theory that scientists have disputed." So much for expertise and media acuity. In a few weeks, perhaps we’ll even see a reassessment of the usefulness of hydroxychloroquine in treating covid.

Now to the third wave. There are already charts doing the rounds of when it’s going to hit us, when it will peak and when it will ebb. The most popular one shows the wave reaching its zenith between September and November and petering out by January, depending upon whether restrictions are fully lifted or made more strict, and virus mutation. While these projections serve a purpose for policy planners, we, the average public, need to understand that any prediction is only as good as the assumptions it is based on. No one predicted the Delta variant and its high contagiousness. No one predicted black fungus.

With the second wave not yet over, we have zero data to say anything with any real validity about a third wave. We have no idea how the virus will mutate, if at all, what that new mutation’s contagion factor (R0) and lethality can be, how resistant it will be to the current vaccines. Assume R0 to be 1.5, and you will get a curve that will shift dramatically if you plot one for 2.7. Both are arbitrary numbers, and given our present state of knowledge, we can’t do better.

Within days of the second wave landing, experts were screaming about a third wave and that it would hit children too. Really? Our experts had not seen the second wave coming, had not warned about mutations, and their statements seem no different from those of roadside astrologers who say, “Hey, I warned you that it’ll be bad" or “It wasn’t so bad, because I warned you." The truth is that ‘experts’ have mostly let us down on covid, but only a few admit this. We have had eminent doctors pontificating on TV about an oxygen shortage but who run upscale hospitals that did not bother to set up on-site oxygen plants.

In the light of what we know, there are no real experts, and the more confident they seem, the less we should trust them. We are on our own here. We need to recognize this and take responsibility. Follow covid protocols and do not over-complicate things. Because, as Jethro Tull sang in Thick as a Brick, wise men don’t know.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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