COVID-19 has reminded us that 2+2 is not equal to 5

COVID-19 has reminded us that 2+2 is not equal to 5

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

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As we were reminded by the eventful US vice-presidential debate last week, COVID-19 has ravaged our world and forced us into sober reflection. For the majority of global citizens this is a potent and grave reminder of our frailty, and we are forced to reckon with our impermanence.

With the recently confirmed infection of famous global politicians who have disavowed the value of efforts to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, no longer can we pretend to live in a world in which action is not married to consequence.

George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 spoke to the danger of false dogma. He illustrated the challenge of deciphering whether falsehoods, metaphorically displayed by 2 + 2 = 5, declared by an authoritarian State, can evolve into being taken for fact.

As our world has increased in complexity, we have an unprecedented ability to quickly represent — or misrepresent — information at alarming scales of influence. We must therefore proactively consider whether our opinions are founded upon fact-based principles and practices, and ask ourselves whether the premises upon which we have been operating are, in fact, anchored to reality.

In its earlier days, the threat of COVID-19 was met by varying levels of urgency in different states. Expectedly, countries that had heeded early warnings and sought proactive and timely risk mitigation have found themselves in a fortunate position — such as Taiwan, South Korea. Conversely, states that responded with denial and contrived positivism have suffered dearly, both in loss of life and loss of economic integrity. Ironically, failure to take early action for fear of economic consequences will likely redound to their long-term economic detriment.

Delayed responses appear to have been the consequence of either outright disavowal — perhaps in an attempt to avert disruptive economic forces — or blasé, dismissive reactions stemming from a misguided understanding of the threat. From blatant falsehoods with proclamations that the virus does not exist, to undermining prevarications that mischaracterise its severity, these shortcomings in leadership have been costly. In some states, ignorance has been blended with political expediency that has further impeded adequate preparation and appropriate management. For this, lives and livelihoods have been lost.

It is plausible that many decision-makers that have failed their states had been accustomed to circumnavigating unfavourable situations with distortion and spin, and assumed that COVID-19 was simply another threat that could be managed away. The political game is indeed complex and multidimensional, and responses to threats have to be strategically designed to ensure that the spectrum of outcomes are favourable across a range of scenarios. However, as the recently confirmed infection of famous global politicians has shown, viruses have no regard for personal, political, or economic priorities. They infect without discrimination, and — as far as they are concerned — we are all potential hosts for propagation. They have reminded us that biological forces are natural and cannot be ignored, and we have been forced to acknowledge that there are rules to our existence that no amount of triangulation will nullify.

As collective human intelligence has increased in its depth and scope, and we have been able to achieve feats unimaginable to our predecessors. This collective human achievement has been accelerated by the tool kit of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which has given us the ability to design and create intelligence. We should consider whether we have been blinded by the allure of infinite possibility and have mistakenly misread our achievements as omnipotence. Increasingly, we have come to live in a world where facts are blatantly denied and entitled ideologues assume the power to design truth. We should reflect on the possibility that we have been disconnected from reality for too long and have been calling shovels spades for such a long time that we have failed to recognise that they are indeed not the same.

Perhaps, like Icarus, we have flown too close to the sun, and — after over a century of progress, grandiosity, and illusions of immortality — this pandemic has reminded us of our collective humanity. It is hoped that this grave and traumatic global experience begets a new spirit of commitment to truth; a resolve to remain fact-driven and boldly acknowledge when the emperor wears no clothes. And as the phoenix rises from the ashes, and we move forward as a rehabilitated human race, may we be reminded that, no matter where we go, the rules of mathematics still exist.


David Walcott, PhD, is a medical doctor, entrepreneur and consultant to several businesses in the Caribbean. His is a Rhodes scholar and founder of NovaMed, a company driving the adoption of innovative health care solutions in emerging markets and operates several businesses in the region. He currently serves as co-chair of the COVID Steering Committee of the World Economic Forum's Global Shapers Community.

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