On being blinded by what we see
By Toh Hsien Min
I'm sick of writing editorials about Covid-19. Since January last year, more than half of my editorials have touched on the coronavirus. Given that my editorials are generally about a non-soapboxer being forced to soapbox, often (as right now) with a deadline and the assistance of lubricating alcohol, they tend to find their way to what is closest at hand. Call it availability, if you like. If so, I am not sure what it indicates that Covid-19 is still the subject of enforced soapboxing over a year later.
In one of the most influential pieces of thinking about the coronavirus, in March 2020 - early enough in the pandemic to have made a difference, assuming world leaders paid attention - Tomas Pueyo described a strategy to the coronavirus that he called the Hammer and the Dance. It talked about a very hard suppression strategy featuring strict lockdowns to get the virus under control within one's borders, followed by a more fluid and agile approach of switching measures on and off to keep the virus under control while allowing society to be as open as it can. Re-reading the article today, I am struck by quite how messy the argument is, though prescient (for when it was written). However, I also pick up the scope for the actions it describes: "to keep this virus contained until there's a vaccine", and Pueyo does go on to write other articles, including a framework for how to reopen. Some of it feels cold and calculative - there is a section titled 'The Price of a Life' - but it is fair to say that at least he is trying to urge consideration of the costs of a Covid suppression strategy rather than assuming that to be an unsullied good, in order to strike a balance. Pueyo's argument is that against the lives that are saved governments have to weigh the livelihoods that are destroyed when measures undertaken devastate economies. I would go further, to say that there is a relatively unseen cost, which is the psychological stress of keeping the population on a war footing for long; I am hearing anecdotal evidence from medicial professional friends on the psychological health of the nation, perhaps crystallising in Singapore's first fatal school incident. In revisiting the strategies of 2020, we have to ask: why is it that after we have a vaccine and have rolled it out to three-fifths of our population our strategies of 2021 remain much the same as those of 2020? Why do we not have the backbone to follow the data that we have on the effectiveness of vaccines in more nuanced policy, as opposed to the current one of allowing some vaccine holdouts to hold the entire population to ransom? Surely punishing the many for the sins of the few cannot be the cornerstone of public policy? But if it is, then we fully deserve the prisoner's dilemma of people in Singapore choosing not to have the vaccine - since taking the vaccine delivers no change to our lives.
The problem, of course, is that in most countries it is politically costly to pursue a policy to which one can directly trace the death of citizens. Arguably, the situation is one of the government's own making. By focussing so much attention on Covid, this government has painted itself into a corner from which recovering the situation is tricky. In comparison to Covid, other less visible costs attract less attention. Increases in suicide rates, for example; in 2020, the increase in suicides over the previous year has outstripped the mortality rate from Covid, but because these cannot be directly attributed to the government's Hammer, they can be easily ignored. In this light, this is society being bullied by our own mental biases, in this case the availability heuristic, which Daniel Kahneman describes as judging the risk by "the ease to which instances come to mind". We are blinded by what we can see so that everything else stays in the shadows, even when it is right in front of us. The government has talked about a strategy that moves towards treating the coronavirus like the flu, but hasn't acted on it. That's a point of reference that is right in front of us. If we pause to ask ourselves what the mortality rate from the common flu is in Singapore, we will have a much more normalised marker by which to understand the coronavirus pandemic than the artificial one that we have made for ourselves. (It's around 588 deaths per normal year - which places the aggregate mortality to date of 37 deaths from Covid, albeit because of draconian measures, in quite the startling context.) The question is, will this government have the wisdom - or the courage - to rethink its course?
Difficult decisions might as well be a theme for this issue. In the poetry section, from what was a medium-sized crop, I had a much longer shortlist than I've had in perhaps half a decade, and choosing the poems for this issue took me much longer and involved more agonising than I had expected. Oddly, rather a number of poems centred on a theme where public policy will be influential, except that climate change has the ill fortune to be less available than the coronavirus as this stage. The other sections may not have coalesced around a theme, but they remain as thought-provoking as always; I wondered why Wyatt Hong's Selegna Sol sounded so much more normal than our Eropagnis, even when the coronavirus has wreaked so much more devastation there. Who is seeing the wood, and who the trees?QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021