But the reason is not what you think
For the past 3 weeks I’ve been spending time on twitter,
monitoring the emerging response to the Covid-19 epidemic and, as we learn
more, translating scientific ‘signals’ and policy responses into plain
In the past week, that role has become controversial.
I wrote in my last post about how our Prime Minister has politicised the reliability of communications. The government has taken to late night press conferences where it announces a laundry list of restrictions with no clearly apparent underlying principle. Journalists and health promotion people are united in agony at this spectacle.
The government’s ongoing failure
to show its workings has important implications for adherence with
recommendations. As I’ve argued, people don’t adhere to recommendations they
don’t understand. This includes people (of all ages) going to cafés and pubs,
for example, breaking recommendations of physical separation and avoiding mass
But reactance against
poorly-understood recommendations can go in the opposite direction as well —
people being hyper conscientious, and people being utterly convinced that
current recommendations are totally inadequate.
The public debate over how we are
responding to Covid-19 is increasingly focused on demands for school closures.
People are quite rightly observing that kids can get the virus and
pass it on. Intuitively, that makes sense, right? Kids are little grot monsters
and childcare is a swap meet for bugs of all kinds — every head cold going,
flu, gastro, nits, hand and mouth, you name it.
All the same, AHPPC says there’s no evidence kids play a major role in epidemic transmission and it does not recommend school closures. That looks like a huge contradiction, and the failure to explain it has left a lot of people feeling severely mistrustful of the response.
Along with a small crew of co-authors on a recent Conversation piece, I’ve been active on twitter trying to explain what Prof Tony Blakely calls the ‘missing rationale’ for Australia’s responses to the Covid-19 epidemic.
Some of the most bizarre inconsistencies,
like weddings being capped at five people but fitness boot-camps being
allowed ten, are a little easier to understand if you know that
Covid-19 is most easily passed on via close, sustained contact. Sitting
side-by-side in pews for 90 minutes affords a better chance of viral
transmission than doing star jumps 2 metres apart, outside.
(Others, like allowing barbers to
remain open, are just bizarre and inconsistent.)
So this past week on twitter I’ve
been making the point that school closures are not supported by evidence… and
encountering increasingly caustic responses.
Such as Amy Thunig saying ‘you’re
not an expert, you’re not an epidemiologist, you’re just a health
communications guy.’ Somehow overlooking the fact our epidemic response is
currently paralysed by our government’s inability to communicate
effectively, and there’s an emerging political crisis about that.
The demand for school closure fits the pattern I described in my post on panic. Processing complex messages is much harder in high energy emotional states like alarm, distress, anger and panic. People in those states reject emotionally dissonant messages, e.g. if the tone isn’t suitably urgent, the speaker is seen as untrustworthy and the message is discounted.
School closure is simple, urgent, and decisive.
Here’s the counter-argument:
- The WHO Joint China investigation found that in China, which had one hundred thousand cases and aggressive tracing of contacts, children were much more likely to be infected by their parents than the other way around.
- Other countries like Singapore have controlled the outbreak without closing schools, albeit with much higher collective adherence to social distancing (physical separation) recommendations;
- In Australia, data on cases and contact tracing shows very few infections in young people — at the time of writing, in New South Wales, only 27 out of 818 total cases were under 19 years.
- Modelling studies show that school closures won’t help, and a study published today from the University of Sydney shows they may lead to more children becoming infected via contact with higher risk adults.
But it seems nobody’s buying that. It is contradicted by the widespread belief that there is exponential community transmission that is not being picked up in our data.
These two beliefs — infectious
kids, unobserved transmission — have formed what sociologist Erving Goffman
called a strong discourse. Normally you validate a model against empirical
data. In a strong discourse, if the empirical data doesn’t fit the model, it’s
the data that is rejected.
We see that happening when we
attempt to persuade anti-vaccination advocates and climate denialists with
evidence. They reject empirical findings as logically inconsistent
with prior beliefs, even though nothing about the universe obeys the laws of
It’s happening now with Covid-19
control, and that is an extremely concerning development. It has the potential
to compromise the ability of governments to communicate not just the rationale
for action, if they ever felt like doing that, but what we need people to do.
It can also poison the political conversation.
We’ve spent a week on an increasingly heated argument about school closures. They have driven a split through the ‘national cabinet’ of state and territory and the Commonwealth governments, with Vic and NSW going their own way. And while that has dominated the news, we haven’t been talking about the devastating effects of the epidemic and control measures on people’s livelihoods.
This week we saw the modern-day
equivalent of bread lines snaking around the block, as people tried to get
their identity validated so they could complete online claims for social
security payments. We have a huge population of temporary residents who are not
eligible for those payments and therefore have to keep working, putting them at
increased risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
Some twitter users have argued the
government, in trying to minimise restrictions and their impact on employment,
is putting dollars before lives. Others have demanded the government tell us
all it knows.
But there’s no big secret there.
The government is sitting on epi modelling that predicts tens of thousands of deaths as hospitals are overwhelmed. That isn’t a secret; it’s the premise for flattening the curve, which many people now recognise, if not understand precisely. It is also sitting on economic modelling that predicts millions jobless and multiple years of recession. And it is trying to negotiate a way forward with both of those things happening simultaneously, knowing those predictions could spark widespread panic.
We need to be talking about that.
We need to talk through what that means.
So let’s close the schools and move on with the public conversation.
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