Friday 27 March 2020

On thinking about what I thought about the Coronavirus

On Monday the 16th of March, the government announced that we should “avoid” pubs, restaurants and theatres. For many people, this seemed so blindingly obvious given the threat posed by Covid-19 that they felt the government should have simply banned them even earlier.

Yet the day after, despite the governments warning, I saw people gathering in pubs and cafes. When people act in a way that seems so obviously wrong, it is really hard to understand their line of reasoning. Usually people try and explain away this behaviour as a combination of stupidity or selfishness.

However, I really do not think the vast amount of people who went to the pub last week are either of those things.

So as I was trying to put myself in the shoes of someone that went to the pub last week and see what possible reasons I may go, but the first thing that struck me is how quickly this crisis seemed to occur.

I am not one to always plug psychological explanations but to me a lot of people are experiencing hindsight bias: a lot of us feel that we saw this crisis coming way before everyone else.

So in order to test this I searched my e-mails and chats for any clues to my thoughts on the coronavirus over time and this is what I came up with (I suggest you try it too, it is a sobering experience).

January 31st, 2020
My diary tells me that on this day I played a board game with friends. I remember at the time not being concerned about the coronavirus and thinking everything would likely be fine. Even when travel restrictions were coming in, I still thought optimistically that the virus would still be contained. Perhaps it was because there has never an event like this in my life time or we just have an in built bias towards being optimistic, either way this is how I felt.

Why do I remember thinking this so vividly? Well the board game in question was called Pandemic (we lost by the way).

27th of February-ish, 2020
I remember around this week I talked to some Italian colleagues over lunch. They were telling me about the outbreak in Italy and whole villages acting like ghost towns. Italians I know are really worried about getting sick by what they call “a hit of air”, so I think I thought this was probably an overreaction. I do remember diligently washing my hands but I am pretty sure I remember being optimistic about the situation, even if I was a little worried.

6th of March, 2020
My worry was increasing by the day at this at this point. I remember seminars were getting cancelled because of travel concerns. But it wasn’t until this day that I really got it. I mean, this was the day I really understood the enormity of the problem.

Over whatsapp an Italian friend was telling me she was worried about travelling to the South of Italy as the virus may spread from the North. She told me that she was not worried about getting sick, but there was a lack of hospital beds in the South. I remember seeing the “flatten the curve graph” on twitter which is when things really started to click.

I remember telling people after the 6th of March that it was likely pubs were going to close here. People reacted to the news with disbelief, as if I were a crank holding up an “end is nigh" sign.

So if you were honest with yourself, when did you first understand the enormity of the issue we face? My feeling is it wouldn’t be that much before me or that much afterwards. And if it was way before me then you are either an oracle or most likely misremembering: a lot of epidemiologists were still unsure whether it was going to be a global pandemic up until a few weeks ago.

I am not trying to create a competition here as to who understood the problem first. The purpose is to understand why some people did/do not grasp the scale of the problem.

I am a nerd with Italian friends, whose job involves data, and follows other nerds on twitter. If there was ever someone who should understand the problem surely it would be me and others like me? However, I really only understood the problem a week before the government announced people to avoid going to the pub. This doesn’t sound like a lot of time to me to get the message across to people don't follow the news so closely etc.

I think if we are going to try and understand why people went to the pub despite warnings, we need to do so from a place of humility rather than scorn.

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