Yong begins by explaining how COVID19 is just one of many coronaviruses, each of which is different.
There isn’t just one coronavirus. Besides SARS-CoV-2, six others are known to infect humans—four are mild and common, causing a third of colds, while two are rare but severe, causing MERS and the original SARS. But scientists have also identified about 500 other coronaviruses among China’s many bat species.
This is in contrast to SARS-CoV-2, the disease that the virus induces. Something which there is still a lot of mystique and mystery around.
Prasad’s concern is that COVID-19 has developed a clinical mystique—a perception that it is so unusual, it demands radically new approaches. “Human beings are notorious for our desire to see patterns,” he says. “Put that in a situation of fear, uncertainty, and hype, and it’s not surprising that there’s almost a folk medicine emerging.”
In the rush to understand, scientists face the challenged on not only sorting through peer-reviewed research, but also the plethora of preprint research released into the public discourse.
Preprints also allow questionable work to directly enter public discourse, but that problem is not unique to them. The first flawed paper on hydroxychloroquine and COVID-19 was published in a peer-reviewed journal, whose editor in chief is one of the study’s co-authors. Another journal published a paper claiming that the new coronavirus probably originated in pangolins, after most virologists had considered and dismissed that idea.
Associated with this challenge, there are questions about those who actually has expertise and the reality that to produce the answers we may want we actually need to work together.
No one knows it all, and those who claim to should not be trusted.
In a pandemic, the strongest attractor of trust shouldn’t be confidence, but the recognition of one’s limits, the tendency to point at expertise beyond one’s own, and the willingness to work as part of a whole.
Something that confounds this is the inconsistency with the messaging from the official streams.
The impulse to be reassuring is understandable, but “the most important thing is to be as accurate as possible,” Inglesby says. “We should give people information so they can do what they think is right. We should tell people what we don’t know and when we’ll know more.”
With this confusion from those in power comes the rise of disinformation and falsehoods by those wishing to take it.
As the reality of the pandemic becomes clearer, the partisan gap is rapidly closing. But as time passes, misinformation, which refers to misleading stories that are circulated in good faith, will give way to disinformation—falsehoods deliberately seeded “to leverage the disaster for political power,” Starbird says.
One particular point of confusion is the death count associated COVID-19 and the fact that we often overlook what the numbers actually say.
If flu deaths were counted like COVID-19 deaths, the number would be substantially lower. This doesn’t mean we’re overestimating the flu. It does mean we are probably underestimating COVID-19.
This all creates for a challenging narrative. Like the Y2K bug, it is a difficult story to tell, for the success often relates to what goes untold.
I cannot read about the losses that never occurred, because they were averted. Prevention may be better than cure, but it is also less visceral.
Along with steams such as Coronacast, I have found Ed Yong’s posts useful in making sense of the current crisis.