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Opinion: The antidote to COVID whiplash – Reflections on pandemic humility

The following is a submitted Op/Ed article. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

After a series of seemingly contradictory, closely-timed pandemic announcements from various levels of government, I have COVID whiplash. I literally have a headache. Maybe you do, too?

For but three examples:

1) During a city council meeting in December, the regional Medical Officer of Health told municipal representatives that Kingston’s healthcare institutes had adequate capacity to deal with the new variant. His statement came at the same time – almost to the minute! – that a local news outlet published a quotation from an area hospital leader who claimed things had become so unsustainable in his charge that patients had to be transported to other communities.

2) Schools are safe and not a significant factor for Omicron’s growth, we heard last Thursday from Queen’s Park in Toronto. Three days later, on Sunday evening, Ford’s cabinet was debating more measures despite the previously purported path forward for the province. By Monday morning, the situation was deemed so out of control by the premier that schools had to close for at least two weeks and surgeries had to be indefinitely cancelled.

3) On boosters: It seems everywhere you look there is messaging to encourage you to get a third dose. Federally, Teresa Tam would be proud (and we know how Justin Trudeau feels about the anti-vaxxers – yikes!) As those sentiments wash over social media, television, and the like, don’t check the World Health Organization website. Why? Because they have spoken against boosters in order to ensure a more equitable distribution of primary vaccination rounds internationally.

These possibly paradoxical pronouncements can feel overwhelming, even absurd, and contribute to very real stress and anxiety. I’d go so far as to say they facilitate unnecessary confusion and tension. I’m actually rubbing my neck typing this.

Thankfully, there’s a true antidote to the back and forth, and up and down, the pesky spike protein has on our souls and society. It’s straightforward, yet sophisticated and difficult to administer. More than that, you have to take it often and orally. 

When feeling confused by, well, everything, simply say: “Can you clarify? I don’t get it. There must be a reason beyond my own understanding that has led to this decision or (in)action.” In other words, consider a gracious or humble response.

Now, before I’m accused of abdicating the vital democratic rights and responsibilities of residents to hold their leaders to account and organize contra the state; and before I’m called a hypocrite for saying this in light of my (sometimes feisty) Twitter feed or (occasionally intense) political commentary in other venues; let me say, I acknowledge the juxtaposition at play. I am, at times, contradictory myself. I am sorry for that. Yet, aren’t we all?

By humbly acknowledging our internal and external contrasts – noting the limitation of the knowledge we do have – and our propensity to champion one side of an argument and then another, if only unintentionally as we gather more details – we solve COVID whiplash by recognizing the complexity of decision making and the variegation of reality. That’s true for public health experts, as it is for politicians, and ourselves personally. Doubly so in a rapidly changing crisis.

Yes, the way we process information, particularly new data, is inconsistent, thorny, and potentially problematic. As much as we strive to be, and we really should prioritize logic, we are not rational creatures. We forget and remember facts at inconvenient times. Different evidence is confirmed and denied, individually and collectively, in nearly mystical ways. The value we ascribe to various things changes over time and space. It might be nice to pretend that that degree of irrationality doesn’t exist; however, it does, in a profound way. (I recommend the fascinating discipline of Behavioural Economics which speaks to these conundrums.)

Our inconsistency doesn’t make sporadic behaviour always acceptable or of no consequence, positive or negative as it may be. Nor does it justify maniacal misuse of evidence or the discounting of best practices. Rather our wavering wills, though challenging, make us human. And I’m increasingly convinced that when we acknowledge the humanity in the person and corresponding circumstance before us — as much as we might initially despise their political ideology, disagree with their take on the subject, or disrespect how they conduct themselves — we avoid the pitfall of demonization, polarization, and valourization that continually get us into trouble. No one is entirely good or completely bad and “us vs them” is mostly manufactured. Reducing someone, some group, or some situation to our knee-jerk reaction to their efforts or its outcomes, no matter our rationale, encourages the type of hubris that brings about conflict and creates discord, within and without ourselves and our communities.

Likewise, by recognizing that some things are out of order, we can then strive for greater alignment of our words and deeds, and a union of our values and way in the world. For this reason, presenting our point of view as if it is airtight, and in turn, discrediting alternative perspectives that can actually shed more light on the given concern, is a problem. We need to have “iron sharpen iron” and more, not less, information.

Such a pretense of perfection also leads to the sudden and ostensibly abrupt changes that further perpetuate the pitfalls mentioned above. In other words, how we analyze what’s happening in the world – whether press conferences, policy, etc –  will always be incomplete. Unless we were “in the room when it happened” – and, I suppose, still if we were – we don’t have the whole picture of any given course of (in)action. That said, it’s essential to ask questions, and be creative and critical in so doing, to fill out the various colours and contours of the setting in question to better comprehend how to improve; just not at the expense of fomenting fear or hate. Curiosity is better than skepticism.  

To get practical, from my vantage point, in pandemic communications, here are some suggestions and reflections on humility:

When a medical officer of health or other expert offers their opinion they could couch their thoughts in language of “likelihoods” and “best estimations”, not certainties that don’t exist in a rapidly evolving public health emergency. Perhaps an acknowledgement that previous projections were different than first anticipated would help bring more folks, especially critics, on board as well. There have been too many patronizing recommendations that have later been recounted, a la “the best shot is the first one you can get”.

Those of us who tweet (too much) or talk for a living – I’m looking at you media, politicians, academics, and armchair experts – ought to be less self-righteous and avoid the temptation to attribute definite malice instead of mere difference to those who disagree with us. It’s not that there is no space for honest division and disagreement but both promise to be more fruitful in a tempered and temporal capacity. Social media could be a place for teamwork and encouragement. It could be!

Activists, unions, opposition parties, and community groups should look at what they agree with the government on, kindly suggesting additional ideas going forward – instead of more or less erasing the good that does exist by an unhelpful focus solely on areas of improvement. A culture of collaboration seems more productive than one of constant combat.

Finally, the Government: stop pretending current policy is the be all and end all; one of the best ways to do this is to openly and genuinely consult with those for whom policy is made; and, pretty please, put an end to essentially denying the position you held but a few days ago was nearly diametrically opposed to what you put forward today. Think of the examples which opened this article. Your pride is less important than your integrity and honesty, a truth that is in turn better for everyone.

A striking example of such humble discourse on this ongoing disease was seen on a national news network at the beginning of 2022 between anchor Natasha Fatah and Dr. Michael Warner. The clip is below: Tough questions. Honest answers. Mutual respect. I think those things speak for themselves and to the very way forward in curing COVID whiplash.

Watch the clip on Twitter. If only more public exchanges could emulate that dynamic.

So, to help get there, I will take my own medicine again and articulate my shortcomings. I can be incongruent, if only unwittingly, and I do not know as much as I would like in discerning what exactly is happening with all of the virus’ zig-zags. It’s easy to fire off a tweet when emotional and feeling like things are truly falling apart. I recant any abrasive and unproductive statements. I won’t give up pressing for clarity and safety and equity in this time of all times. But I will carry on with less angst and more grace as we try to navigate the present moment together. Maybe you will too?

Suddenly my tight neck and headache are gone.

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One thought on “Opinion: The antidote to COVID whiplash – Reflections on pandemic humility

  • January 5, 2022 at 9:16 am
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    A refreshing and welcome reminder of everyone’s responsibility to pay critical attention to what’s going on, to listen seeking to understand, and to weigh in honestly and provisionally, with a good dose of humility about limits to our own perspective. Thank you. Reading this was a good way to start the day!

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