[Un]Learning from Covid: For better politics, slow down and stop trying to win [every] argument.

So, we have a vaccine. Actually, we have several and possibly several more to come. Of my most pessimistic friends who have been following the granular scientific detail say that this Corona scare should be all over bar the shouting (and there’s been a lot of that) by June.

There are lots of speculations about how effective a vaccine has to be to work, but as Stephen Bush on the New Statesman has pointed out, the BCG injection was only 80% effective and yet it more or less wiped out TB as a killer and end of life quality squasher. This is where I endorse Robert’s highlighting of slow and fast thinking.

I noted back in April, “international collaboration is fast-forwarding testing techniques so we will get more precise information about who has the virus and who has had the virus now in the short to medium term and then a vaccine in the longer term.”

That won’t be much compensation for those who don’t make it through (it’s far from over in case I’m giving the impression of the opposite), but we sit a long from the bleak coverage of March and April. Turns out, we are capable of effective collective actions, and that our wellbeing relies on more than the sum of ‘us’ as individuals.

That’s good for us to recognise and learn from. The Oxford Astro Zeneca vaccine was a huge expensive and speculative enterprise but it was a genuinely powerful partnership between public and private research resources. Much of the internationalised learning came out of the public university systems of many countries.

Much that it was falling into disrepute it reminds us that co-operation does not always require formal agreements that come at the speed of tar melting, but also that multilateral co-operation is capable of generating massive public goods.

This contrasts with an often stupid public debate in which single data points have been promoted to articles of faith, often depending on your own sense of mortality or vulnerability to the ravages of what in its most extreme form is a pretty savage and unrelenting disease.

As Tim Hardford notes in his piece for Prospect Magazine:

The truth, it turns out, is complicated. But complicated is no way to win a shouting match. If we want to understand the virus—and, for that matter, anything else in a complex world—we must first give up on the illusion that what passes for public “debate” is about anything more than scoring cheap points, which inevitably come at the cost of the whole truth.

See also Ed Straw’s distinction between the systemic and systematic approaches:

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This stuff may not seem to matter in the short term, but one of the opportunities the Covid crisis has afforded us is to revisit Miyamoto Musashi’s advice from our original study of Unionism, that “In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they were close and to take a distanced view of close things”.

The figures in the south yesterday suggested no new deaths (which the Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan warned was possibly a glitch due to few new figures being collected over the weekend), suggest the south should be heading for a lowering from Level 5.

Then perhaps finally, the southern government will be allowed to get on and take responsibility for implementing it’s aptly named Framework for Living with Covid without its own advisors precipitating a hasty slamming on of the public policy brakes, when the evidence was already in level 3 was having an effect.

The truth is complicated. As guest blogger The Dissenter demonstrated when he looked at the testing regime in our residential homes, perhaps the best way to influence government is not to shout, but to do the work and lay out a picture as clearly and unemotionally as you can, and leave others free to make up their minds.

And as we have seen, those who shout loudest are apt to be the first to break their own rules, be they journalists or politicians desperate to get noticed at a time when necessary action is more important that who gets the headlines. This is why we need to embrace long forms of story gathering.

Photo by Anna Tarazevich is licensed under CC0