“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts.”
That’s Abraham Lincoln’s dictum and it’s a point re-emphasised by John M. Barry in his book The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Greatest Plague in History. Nothing is more damaging in managing popular response to a pandemic than a dissolving of trust in government. The influenza in 1918 was even more damaging as certain groups began to distrust the misinformation being fed to them by their government. The mixed messages and mixed behaviours that resulted led to millions of excess deaths. If it sounds familiar, albeit perhaps less dramatic, that’s because it is. We are at risk at stumbling into the same fate of public mistrust. Barry in his book implores us and our governments not to make the same error in the epidemic episode.
One of the largest problems in our response to COVID-19 has been the public and the government’s misunderstanding of statistics. Right from the first few pages, this book’s use of statistics helps the reader avoid the pitfall. Immediately, we are given a context by which to understand the disease in question. Influenza killed more people in a year than the Black death killed in a century, and it killed more in 24 weeks than AIDS killed in 24 years. The total death toll is estimated at 50-100 million, which is at least 20 times more deaths than COVID-19, in a world which had four times fewer people. In epidemics as in many other subjects, context is king, and the path lies in smart use of statistics...
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