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Pandemic Reader #8 — post-truth partisanship

Curated articles; observed patterns ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Week 10 of UK lockdown
World: confirmed cases 5,304,772, confirmed deaths 342,029

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A society stewing in post-truth politics

Lies and misconduct that used to topple governments seem to have little impact nowadays.

Some progressive critics claimed during the early days of the pandemic it will bring a newfound appreciation of experts, but neither UK nor US politics suggest it.

At this point, it seems post-truth has no antidote, let alone a vaccine. Institutional and evolutionary factors are overpowering anything else. It’ll take a lot of nurture to overcome the manipulation of human nature we’re steeped in.

I think I’ll try to keep the reader going until the end of the UK lockdown and then we’ll see. I may then switch back to a combination of LinkedIn posts and articles/blog posts (email subscribers will get infrequent alerts on longer pieces). You’ll notice it is shorter this week, as I try to focus on changing themes rather than repeat well-trodden territories.

Death toll

The US milestone of 100,000 COVID deaths arrived in time for Memorial Day weekend. A reminder that this number is more than the toll of several decades of conflict, from Vietnam to Iraq, combined. All that, within three months. The New York Times found a particularly resonant way of communicating this incomprehensible number by compiling names and micro-obituaries from local publications. The print version went viral, and this is the web version which is an experience in itself. It’s all meticulously researched.

While some models for the likely toll were scaled back a few weeks into lockdown (scientists assumed people will take more time to comply), it looks like overall models underestimated the toll after lockdown. From this point onwards, the models are increasingly more accurate, and it’s not looking good.

This sort of change is common in epidemiological models where small movements have significant repercussions. This particular model suggests that if the US locked down happened two weeks earlier, the death toll would be about halved.

And what happens in places without a lockdown? We’ve followed the Swedish model in previous issues. Sweden is now the world’s leader at the number of deaths per million. And remarkably, without any noticeable economic benefits at this point.

The pandemic made partisan

The impact policy and reaction time could have had, as mentioned above, is the reason for the increasingly partisan discourse. With future public inquiries almost guaranteed it will be increasingly so. On the BBC, Charlie Brooker’s Antiviral Wipe opens with a darkly humourous yet careful and somewhat horrifying chronicle of the UK government’s’ handling of the early weeks of the pandemic. The level of incompetence is astonishing. How much of that do people even remember? How much will they remember after the pandemic?

We’ll start seeing after the 15/6. When non-essentail UK retail starts reopening. That seems to be the date for the end of lockdown. There’s no point opening stores if you won’t let people go into them. Reopening with precautions. Prepare for more news of retail business blood-bath, people are not going to go back to normal quickly enough. Not with second wave eruptions being quite visible by then.

Here’s the US government version of ‘the balance’ as it encourages people to go back to work with little regards to anything that isn’t the economy.

But the science and calculations of human life value are a much more complicated ethical, economic and mathematical challenge. As this long article from Wired shows.

And so — politicians preach a return to normality and love talking about how close the vaccine is, but scientists are more careful. The vaccine timeline is an example. So don’t let any good new confuse you. It’s many months away.

Trump pushes back on or obscures any numbers. Incompetent governments everywhere will follow his playbook and make it a partisan issue because that’s how they can get off the hook. He may be failing at government, but his agenda of authoritarianism marches on.

The depressing thing about following this man and his staggering levels of incompetence is that you feel nothing matters. He now says it will go away as if by magic. It won’t. And it doesn’t matter if the WP unpacks his manipulative letter to the WHO, blaming the WHO and China will remain central to his campaign until November.

The demonstrations against lockdown have actually spread the virus further, instigated by a handful of extremists crossing over from other states. As we noted previously — many of them are mobilised, fringe activist groups targeted with advertising on social media. They are also receiving disproportional representation due to the structural false balance bias in the news — which reports their story ignoring the evidence consistently showing the majority of people are pro-lockdown regardless of political stance.

How extreme? As in feeling trigger happy for a civil war.

The patchwork nature of the pandemic complicates things and helps to manipulate the national US picture. But zoom out to the discrepancies between countries and the same is likely to apply to the world.

In that world, the impact of lockdown doesn’t just diverge between people or states but between nations. Poor ones suffer disproportionately. Here’s a fact — the number of ‘very poor people’ globally was declining for years. Now it’s rising.

Many of those countries, especially when led by strongman politicians, are lifting or loosening lockdown, despite a surging number of cases. But hey, it worked for Sweden (not), just hundreds of thousands more dead on a global level.

Cost of recovery

In previous weeks the constant deluge of bad financial news was somewhat obstructed by optimistic talk of reopening. Now, a discussion of the cost of recovery will increasingly emerge.

The scale is staggering.

Hopefully, this will force governments to start taxing the tech giants.

Where is London, my home, in all of this? London lost 550k people between 2008–2018, how many more will it lose now — between financial hardship, economic slow-down and the acceleration of remote work? And could it be an opportunity if more pockets will allow young people to stay or come back?

Recession playbook

The FT’s David Buttle chimes in the Drum on the debate we covered in the last few weeks. How to build a case for continued investment in the brand. Much of this is always a good practice.

Silver linings

Mindfulness music playlist from the BBC with an introduction by Sir David Attenborough.

A geeky recounting of the story of one graduate math student and how she solved a decades-old problem.

If like many, you’ve been cooking more, perhaps you’d like to take it back to basics, to learn some principles that will help you improve your cooking across the board. Both series are American, so converting from imperial measures would be required, but it’s worth it. If there’s any metric equivalent — send it my way.

(Here’s a chrome extension to help you with quick conversion — select texts as you read.)

I try to read broadly and deeply, but I’m only one red-eyed human. Send me anything good/important that I’ve missed or put it in the comments.

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Strategist. Director of a boutique agency. Teaches the D&AD’s strategy masterclass and the SCA’s course in strategy. Writing between marketing and culture.

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