When will coronavirus be over? The answer’s not so simple
As more of Australia opens up, Dr Paul Harrison looks at the impact of so much uncertainty – and why it's an important part of our response to coronavirus.
Knowledge is provisional, and the foundation of science is uncertainty.
I know that sounds like a big call but keep reading… please.
Over the past six months of living with COVID-19, we've all become amateur epidemiologists, biologists, public health experts, virologists, economists and statisticians.
And yet we feel that those in authority are still uncertain about what the future holds. This is more than likely true, and while that is unsettling, it is also reassuring. Let me explain.
There are things we know and things we don't know about what might happen in the future.
But humans are notoriously bad at probabilities, predicting the future and forecasting risk. We are afflicted with all sorts of biases, and we simply have an overinflated sense of our own capacity to predict the future.
We get most of our day right, but if we are doing something new or something unexpected happens, then we make adjustments to our plans and expectations.
Without trying to oversimplify a complex process, epidemic models use the same basic principle of forecasting, but in a much more sophisticated, rigorous and (hopefully) less emotional way.
Epidemiologists, data scientists, immunologists and other researchers take what they know about a disease (and other diseases with similarities to it) and use a range of models and theories to make educated guesses about how it may spread and how this may affect people.
The uncertainty of science
What COVID-19 has done is remind us that the world is uncertain, that there are many factors in our lives where we aren't in control, and that when it comes to "wicked problems", it's important to keep an open mind.
But the difficulty many of us are dealing with is that we are now reconsidering how that fits into the way we have perceived (or wanted to perceive) our world up until now.
So, what we are doing is looking for certainty. It gives us a sense of control, reduces stress and allows us to plan.
We want reassurance and clear objectives for how we will get through this. However, we are being forced to reflect on the complexity of this phenomenon and this makes us uncomfortable.
However, the coronavirus pandemic is as much a scientific issue as it is an economic, political and human one. Even though some of us have the misguided belief that science is static and full of facts, the reality is that when it comes to science, knowledge is provisional. Uncertainty is the foundation of science, and progress is only achieved if we are constantly refining our thinking.
We don't know what we don't know, and so through testing, copious studies and analysis, we acquire more data, test more outcomes and gain more knowledge.
What makes this coronavirus pandemic different to others?
In the case of this pandemic, the scientific knowledge we have about it is changing every day, right in front of our eyes. While we have had pandemics and other health crises, the nature of COVID-19 is unfolding in real time for all of us, every day (or even every hour, with media updates).
There are currently more than 100 thousand studies examining the complexity of this virus and its effect with new information, data and insight emerging daily. But we don't have time or capacity to read and understand (and nor should we) all this information.
Learning to embrace change
Not only can health messages change quickly, but the information tends to be simplified for the public's consumption. And this doesn't account for all the false information being spread on social media.
Face masks are a great example. Very early on, there were questions about whether they were effective and whether we should be wearing them.
In the early days of the virus, airborne transmission was not considered likely, and the focus was on washing hands to help stop the spread because there was research about how other coronaviruses spread through touching surfaces and transfer to our respiratory system.
As more research emerged about the aerosol spread of the virus, the messaging had to change and face masks became mandatory in Melbourne and then in the rest of Victoria (and recommended in other states) to prevent transmission from asymptomatic people to other people, rather than just to protect yourself.
Some people were asking why we'd been told not to wear masks earlier. The difficulty was that there were multiple factors being considered as the crisis unfolded. At first, experts weren't sure how effective masks would be (at that point, the assumption was still built around hand-to-hand/nose/mouth transfer), but also authorities didn't have access to personal protective equipment for the entire population and needed masks for medical personnel.
Good scientists embrace uncertainty and the unknowns to find solutions to problems, but this is difficult for us regular folk to do and tough to accept in leaders and experts – even though research suggests that communicating uncertainty doesn't have a significant effect on trust.
The 24-hour, worldwide news cycle
Another difference between this pandemic and others is the Internet, which provides a 24-hour news cycle and communication around the world.
We're all getting different information in real time from people with a whole range of opinions.
As humans, we tend to look for patterns. So that's partly why you might have heard people talking about conspiracy theories around coronavirus or that certain restrictions don't work – confirmation bias then leads some people to link those patterns to their underlying beliefs.
In science – and research in general – we also look for patterns, ideas and examples that undermine our arguments. We want the full picture, which means looking at as many views as possible, even if they don't agree with ours.
But if you're not a researcher, if you're not conditioned or trained to think that way, it's actually difficult to look for patterns that conflict with what you want to believe.
So, what should we do?
At the moment, there are no right or wrong questions. The more each of us knows, the more we can adjust to this situation and work together towards a common goal. Because all of us want things to change for the better, we can all do our part to make that happen.
So rather than looking for the "right" questions to ask, we need to consider what we know, be aware that it could change and keep an open mind.
We need to allow ourselves to adapt as we learn more, to change our minds in some cases and to show understanding and care for others who may have different views – as much as we can.
Mistakes will be made, but if we embrace uncertainty and use it to extend what we currently know, we will find our way out of this crisis.
As told to Amy Bradney-George.
Dr Paul Harrison is the deputy director and marketing lead in the Deakin Business School MBA program, director of The Centre for Employee and Consumer Wellbeing and a senior lecturer at Deakin University. He researches, consults and advises government, industry and NGOs predominantly in the field of consumer behaviour and marketing.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article (which may be subject to change without notice) are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Finder and its employees. The information contained in this article is not intended to be and does not constitute financial advice, investment advice, trading advice or any other advice or recommendation of any sort. Neither the author nor Finder has taken into account your personal circumstances. You should seek professional advice before making any further decisions based on this information.
Images: Getty Images, supplied (Paul Harrison)