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Why We Should Stop Talking About the Coronavirus, COVID-19

We Should Stop Talking About it and Let the Experts Do Their Jobs

Joe Duncan
Apr 22, 2020 · 9 min read

In the flurry of panic and sweeping devastation that occurred in unison over the course of the first few months of the COVID-19 outbreak, writers and journalists of all stripes and qualifications have spoken out their opinions and voices pertaining to the pandemic, each of them offering up material ranging from pet conspiracy theories to hardcore scientific research, depending on who they are. And, just like that, the internet has become awash with all sorts of jargon relating to this pandemic and our responses to it. Some of the most nonsensical opinions ever uttered, ideas that shouldn’t be given the light of day are now broadcasted everywhere for us to read at the tap of the thumb. They arrive in our notifications, they announce themselves to us begging us to read them, they’ve become a constant temptation for us to cheat on our information diets like junk foods lining the isles of stores have become the tempters and temptresses of health conscious shoppers. The difference is our devices are virtually always with us. We’re just now transitioning into the information age and have yet to work out the kinks in the system which are cropping up like a drawn-out game of whack-a-mole. Fake news runs rampant and it is quite difficult for anyone to discern truth from fiction. Well, the good news is, we can do our part. Consider the following thought experiment.

Imagine, if you will, a busy freeway and there is a speeding firetruck trying to get to a building downtown to put out a fire which is roaring with the ferocity of Dante’s inferno. Now imagine that the majority of the cars on that freeway did not have to move over to the shoulder or, even worse, they intentionally drove in front of the firetruck in order to capitalize on those drivers who did kindly pull over out of their respect for public health. It would quickly become exceedingly difficult for the firetruck to reach its location and thus save lives and several buildings downtown. Now, doesn’t it then make sense that there are laws that prohibit us from obstructing an emergency vehicle? I think so.

But because of our laws which endow us with a great deal of freedoms in regards to speech and expression, we don’t have such laws which prevent us from obstructing pivotal information that might shape and perhaps even save the lives of others. This means, the onus is on us. We often don’t think twice about the fact that on the information superhighway, our words, our posts, our blogs, and more, all operate very much like the individual drivers on the road. We can obstruct the facts of the world, we can crowd them out, we can diminish them, we can even vehemently destroy them, as President Trump does about daily.

I, for one, have chosen to remain absent from the conversation and will continue to do so and it’s not without reason — it’s actually one of the best things we can do in the name of public health, right now— and I suggest that other writers consider doing the same. Honestly, I’m fairly scientifically literate, but I know that I’m far underqualified to be making claims or even repeating claims about this virus, especially considering the fact that I don’t have access to data sets with which to form a sensible opinion. Like almost all other laypersons, I’d just be making stuff up. Would it be profitable to do so? Of course, it would. But I urge us as writers, authors, and journalists to give our respects to scientific and epistemological integrity by setting aside the temptation to write a big coronavirus story that may be dubious because it will get us shares, likes, or reads. Just because someone clicks our headline doesn’t mean the information that lies beyond that headline is credible and so long as algorithms dictate what readers see, and those algorithms cannot determine true from false very well, we’re going to cause more harm than good— views and reads aren’t a sound measure of informational credibility.

It’s time we let the experts speak for themselves and that involves clearing room for those experts to be able to speak without the hinderance of our work getting in the way, clogging up people’s feeds, and burying the legitimate scientific opinion under the weight of armchair hypothesizing and wish-for-what-serves-us-most scenarios.

I hope that readers and writers alike can take this as a smart, sensible suggestion that we stop talking about COVID-19.

Protestors demanding the freedom to risk their lives without much of an afterthought about how that might affect the already stretched-too-thin healthcare system are a worrying sight, indeed. Information is something that’s highly dependent upon quality, not quantity, and I can only urge fellow writers to resist the urge to write about the virus and its potential destruction unless they have scientific authority to do so which has been bestowed upon them by a credible institution. Science loses its integrity without a scientific consensus and we laypersons don’t have the right to comment on an ongoing scientific debate without any evidence from which to draw our commentary whatsoever.

The medical establishment has been saying that social distancing and staying home is us doing our parts to contain the virus and help flatten the curve. Very well. I’d also like to point out that we who aren’t involved in the scientific communities battling this virus and the institutional response to it are similarly in a place where the best thing we can do for those institutions is to allow them the space in the virtual blogosphere to talk about it without their message being distorted or watered down by thousands upon thousands of armchair bloggers.

COVID-19 is simply more pressing because it will cost lives quickly if bad, faulty, or otherwise distorted messages get out and is widely read.

We poison the well when we speak hatred against the trained professionals who have a deeper and more vibrant understanding than we do, much like the protestors are doing now. We offer arguments from our ignorance, forming pet theories and attacking credibly established evidence with them so we can feel vindicated. Thus, the internet has become a playground for argumenta ad nauseam, where the totality of conflicting information is so overwhelming that we throw up our hands and sometimes exclaim that nothing is knowable, and no one can be trusted. This is dangerous.

Sometimes massive information campaigns are contrived and thought-out before they’re executed for political aims. Alex Jones is an obvious example of disinformation campaigns for the sake of political dogma. But sometimes they come about because of a misreading of the facts and then a voice who’s been offered a platform mass-sharing what amounts to their own ignorance and others consuming it wholesale.

We cannot afford to trust uncredentialed bloggers when it comes to this issue. I know this will be a hard pill for a lot of people to swallow but nobody, and I mean nobody, gets to have an opinion on facts.

The 20th-century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once intuited very rightly that with every freedom comes an innate responsibility to uphold that freedom ethically, especially in an authentic way, saying: “The one who realizes in anguish [their] condition as being thrown into a responsibility which extends to [their] very abandonment has no longer either remorse or regret or excuse; [s]he is no longer anything but a freedom which perfectly reveals itself and whose being resides in this very revelation.”

In other words, we are born both free and responsible for our freedom, and we feel whole when our actions are in congruence with our knowledge and acceptance of this fact. To be both free and irresponsible is to be inauthentic, it’s to remain in denial of what we intuitively know and understand, that our actions have consequences and, at the very least, will draw upon them the peering eyes of others which will come with judgments of their own. Self-actualization depends upon us coming to terms with these concrete facts of our existences, we must abandon our excuses and live our freedom with clarity and understanding of the effects — Sartre begs us not to turn a blind eye to the real effects of both our actions and inactions.

I fear that we’re someday going to discover in our future that you can either have free information or scientific and institutional integrity, but it’s exceedingly difficult to have both side-by-side, a balancing act we’ll hopefully strike in the coming years or decades before our collective ignorance turns out to be our collective undoing. Why so few talk about the fact that the tragedy of the commons applies to information also, I have no idea, but I hope we begin to, as it’s becoming increasingly pressing in the information age.

Denialism has been a hinderance to both public health and scientific progress since the dawn of science, from poison-the-well strategies which seek to discredit the overwhelming evidence of medicinal cures to the denial of climate change, the world is worse off when ignorant members of the public and loud media voices chime in on a subject that they’ve got no formalized training in.

Having all of this said, I get it. I understand that COVID-19 is at the forefront of our lives and it’s on everyone’s minds as the pandemic stretches on and consumes us and the societies around us. There’s nothing wrong with sharing our individual experiences with others and it might prove quite helpful as we endure social isolation and distancing measures which aren’t exactly comfortable. We can still safely write about the impact that quarantine has had on our lives, for instance, or suggest ideas that one another might take up while we live through this unusual time, trying to pick up the pieces of economies that are in shambles and the very precarious situations of respective cases of mental health and isolation. Writing about life in quarantine and firsthand experiences isn’t the same as writing about COVID-19. I’ve done this here:

In the end, all I’m suggesting is that we make way for the professionals in their respective fields of medicine, science, and public health the same way that all of us would make way for a fire truck on its way to put out a fire or an ambulance on its way to save a human life. Sometimes, the simple act of expressing ourselves is much like driving and can be obstructive to emergency situations of life and death, and this pandemic is exactly one of those cases. So please, let’s be mindful.

For the best information available regarding COVID-19 and everything to do with it, if you’re in the US, I suggest turning to our governmental sites a few of which will be listed below. Thank you for reading.

Full disclosure: This story contains affiliate links to Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophical work Being and Nothingness and I may make a commission through such links. Sartre’s work has been incredibly impactful upon my life, so for those interested, his book can be found here, though it’s quite dense.

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