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A file photo of Emergency medical personnels
A file photo of Emergency medical personnels

Opinion | A Dunning-Kruger pandemic seems to have broken out too

Complete shutdowns can also be dangerous and this needs to be acknowledged around the world

India’s official response to Covid-19 is in line with conventional wisdom. It is too soon to tell if the lockdown was the right decision. That said, I would like to channel the late Swedish physician Hans Rosling here: He likened listening to epidemiologists on disease projections to long jumpers getting to measure and report their long jumps. Incentivized to exaggerate.

In the UK, Neil Ferguson has backtracked from half a million deaths to 20,000 deaths, and is unwilling to admit he had overstated the case. A theoretical epidemiologist and her group at Oxford University published a study that says half the UK population might already be infected because the virus initially spread invisibly, like all emerging infections. This suggests that the infection fatality rate (IFR) must be rather low. Immediately, a few other epidemiologists dismissed her and her study. Ferguson too made light of the study. This seems like pandemic fundamentalism.

The point that the study makes is consistent with an argument made by two professors of medicine at Stanford Medical School who wrote that since we don’t know the true number of those infected and that it was likely to be grossly understated, the true IFR must be rather low.

The Diamond Princess cruise ship served as a real involuntary laboratory. That evidence has been ignored. It had 3,711 persons aboard, about 700-800 infected, and about 8-10 deaths; even in this relatively small group, we cannot get the correct number. Different numbers are floating around, and hence those ranges. Yet, we delude ourselves into thinking that we can model the virus and come out with apocalyptic predictions while dismissing others who have another point of view.

But I digress. With respect to the Diamond Princess, look at the population, the number of infected, and the number of deaths. It is not that difficult to arrive at an IFR. These are also largely middle-aged or older people.

In a paper, Philip Thomas, a professor at the University of Bristol, models the inflection point at which the economic pains (including its impact on human health and life expectancy) begin to exceed the putative gains from the lockdowns that are in force today in many parts of the world. The paper deals with the UK situation, but the author points out its relevance for the rest of the world. He is not a Wall Street financier.

Paul Romer and Alan Garber suggest that if the US kept up with its strategy of suppression based on indiscriminate social distancing for 12 to 18 months, most Americans might be alive but the economy would be dead. One only has to think of its relevance to India.

There is no clarity on how long the virus lives on surfaces; whether it could be airborne; whether the length of the incubation is a week or two; whether asymptomatic people could infect others; whether a second wave would come; whether warmer weather would help. Instead of acknowledging the reality of there being no final answers, decisions are being guided by the belief that there is only one set of answers to these questions. Few are ready to consider the slow-burn damage, death and destabilizing consequences set in motion by such decisionmaking, especially in countries with no or limited resources to mitigate (let alone eliminate) such consequences.

Amar Bhide of Tufts University wrote that lockdowns each winter could potentially turn a bad year into a good one, saving 50,000 deaths, reducing pressure on intensive care units and forestalling catastrophes. Fatal car accidents would also fall, further reducing demands on emergency care.

Yet, such an approach is not pursued every year, and there is a reason. We reject safety at all costs; we risk more deaths in order to live better lives because the costs are borne by those who can ill afford them, especially in developing countries.

Is it right for epidemiologists to make public policy with economic, social, political and health consequences?

It feels unreal that we have been convinced to plot our own economic destruction. I do not have an answer to why it is happening. I can only guess. It is just that we live in an age of paranoia. We know that we have made many mistakes with nature, climate, the environment, and with the biological and zoological worlds. A guilty conscience seems to have tricked us into believing that the end of the world is nigh. The consequent paranoia persuades us to lock everyone else down in order to save ourselves. That is also reflective of a sense of entitlement. So, the elites generate incomplete and one-track inferences based on inaccurate information; the media amplifies and sensationalizes them, and the public whips itself into a frenzy, gripped as it is by a guilt complex coupled and a sense of entitlement. The result? Economic shutdowns that could eventually kill and destroy more people and livelihoods than would be saved by these lockdowns.

An unacknowledged problem may be a Dunning-Kruger pandemic that appears to have infected public intellectuals. If they’re unaware of it, it would only prove the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people assess their cognitive abilities to be greater than they are.

V. Anantha Nageswaran is a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. These are the author’s personal views

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