Red pill, blue pill — the tribalism around Covid-19

After Trump was elected back in the day, I was horrified / shocked and would wake up every morning and doom scroll before getting ready for work. There was a lot of coverage of all the terrible things Trump was doing and thinking about the potential long-term effects of his actions frightened me. He was messing with institutions. He was locking up children. He was stocking the courts with conservatives. He was rolling back environmental legislation. He was banning Muslims and flaming hatred towards minorities, etc.

A few months in to 2017, I was struck by how one time at work this marketing lady sitting in the open office lambasted Trump out loud for doing something stupid. I felt a sense of having been lifted up — this white person at work hated Trump and was criticising his stance. It felt like having an “ally” — on the one hand, that Trump wasn’t someone just hated by minorities or Muslims, and on the other, hating on him was something that could be done out loud at work too.

I read a lot of anti-Trump news. I watched Vox videos that suggested Trump and his surrogates were given too much air time and that the current journalism model of “telling both sides of the story” just didn’t work anymore. Journalists had to stop trying to get both versions and more actively call out the lies. (In the backdrop there was the more meta and regulatory discussion around the role of social media in disinformation). Colbert’s late night show, one that I loved, grew in popularity even as he bashed Trump more and more and more and more openly. The show topped the late-night line-up in ratings, and it made me feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. It meant doing good things, like holding power accountable, could lead to good outcomes. If Colbert was rising, it meant people truly cared and were following other people who cared.

I was (am) a truly cookie cutter leftist liberal in most ways. My main source of news was the New Yorker and Vox. I’m somewhere on the Bernie / Warren side of the spectrum because of my views on consumer protection, immigration, healthcare, and wealth distribution. Also my mind hasn’t changed on any of these issues. I’m a pretty strong believer in the role of the state in providing welfare, ensuring distribution of wealth, and protection of minorities. But post-Covid, I feel like I’ve taken, pardon the cringe-worthy cultural reference, the “red pill”.

I don’t want to make this post about Covid or the lockdowns but rather about my scepticism towards the interventions and how flabbergasted I continue to be 9 months on that very few other people seem to share it. We all bring our own “spiritual” or value judgements to an event, and I suppose it’s surprising to me that more liberals didn’t come with the same biases.

By mid-March, when European countries all simultaneously went into lockdown, my apprehension of Covid-19 lockdowns was instant. I looked at the set of facts in March / April and did not reach the same conclusions as the NYT, Vox, or New Yorker. I don’t even remember how I first discovered John Ioannidis (epidemiologist, Stanford), but his YouTube videos were the only and first information segments that made sense. I then separately discovered Jay Bhattacharya (health economist, also Stanford). But apart from those 1 or 2 interviews I couldn’t find more research or information from them. I would Google their name every day hoping something would come up so that I could learn about the pandemic. Eventually I took to Twitter, they weren’t there, but over months, and somewhat organically, I found a set of people that were just as good. Youngish scientists who were polite and non-extremist on twitter (gasp!), very knowledgeable, and leftist. They became my window into the world of Covid science and scientists. And since then I’ve learnt a lot about (or become more aware of) medical research, the scientific process, the peer-review and publishing process, bad science, and the lack of a consensus among scientists and how Covid uncertainties are being presented to the public. You can watch (as I’m sure other journalists do too) debates take place on Twitter: discussions around epidemic models, transmission (or lack thereof) from children, the low or high infectiousness of Covid strains, etc happen live and conclude that there is much that is not known (or instead like many journalists, get quotes from the people with the most followers and ignore everything else).

Fairly early on I went from swearing by the New Yorker (had been a subscriber from 2015) to being frustrated by it. I couldn’t understand the one-sided coverage. The focus on the minutiae of every Covid death and pushing the dogma of managing Covid using lockdowns without any discussion of trade offs and potential harms. (Not to mention that it wasn’t and isn’t the most deadly preventable infectious disease on the planet.) The fear mongering in the NYT I guess should have been less surprising (I don’t really approve of their coverage of Pakistan and they are also the paper that published the story that gave Bush all the excuse he needed to invade Iraq). But I couldn’t understand how the very institutions that had taught me everything I knew about inequality, race, and poverty (and their direct correlation with health) were refusing to discuss how lockdowns were impacting poor people in the West or in the world. It’s like a hysteria had (has) taken over them.

News outlets usually have a political bias but you do rely on the household names to put in the work for you of vetting sources, of verifying claims, getting the full story, informing you. There’s no way average people can do this for themselves. But because of the polarisation and hatred of Trump (unless things have always been this way and being informed has always been an illusion) and because, let’s face it, the rest of the world relies on the USAs leadership (very much including Europe), we ended up not so much being informed but being catered to.

The “panic porn” has been everywhere. Panic sells. Conflict sells. Sex sells. Drama sells. Soon after Trump’s election it was said that CNN’s unfiltered coverage of Trump’s rally had contributed to his election (they would play hours of that with no voiceovers due to the good ratings). Anyone who has ever taken a journalism class knows that selling is part of writing for an outlet. Will this appeal to the audience? Well, does it have a strong opinion / angle? Then yes definitely. Is it a balanced article on the pros and cons of an issue? Probably less so. At the end of the day, media businesses are… err a business. And the primary purpose of a business is to turn a profit (it’s funny, I still have a vivid memory of being taught this in a civics class in my French high school).

What I would conclude is simply: the error has been two fold. On the scientists, many (not a majority to my knowledge) have shown much hubris having been cast into the spotlight for the first time. They don’t want to show the public the real uncertainties around Covid research because it does not align with their beliefs or their political opinions (and the sad thing is, like religious zealots who are trying to “save” you from yourself, they are also trying to “save” us from ourselves. The parallels with religion at this stage cannot be understated). On the media outlets, whether it’s NYT or the Guardian, they are not presenting information, they are presenting somebody’s opinion that they got off Twitter (and if you pay attention, it is usually the same five people). Probably someone with a lot of followers on Twitter (reminder: Twitter is a popularity contest) and likely may not even represent the majority of scientists’ opinions (reminder: most people are not on Twitter).

If tenured, esteemed, well-established professors like Ioannidis have been actively torn down and smeared by louder, more zealous voices, ask yourself: what does this mean for the more “lowly” researchers or associate professors who are not established yet. Many people will not want to stick their necks out and disagree publicly with an online mob that could jeopardise their careers.

I understand the urge to reject anything the Right says, but this time, I don’t think they’re the bad guys.

Mix of fiction and non-fiction.