Coronavirus: Beware politics over science in reopening economy

Opening things up gradually alongside a comprehensive test, trace and isolate regime stands a chance of success

Brexiteers, climate change deniers and fans of Trump all have a similar narrative, one that says we should never have locked down in the first place. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Brexiteers, climate change deniers and fans of Trump all have a similar narrative, one that says we should never have locked down in the first place. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

I try to avoid explaining the gyrations of the stock market. It involves erroneously linking correlated events in a causal way. “Good news on coronavirus causes a surge in stock prices” – that sort of thing.

Donald Trump plays the game all the time: “My presidency has led to a stock market boom.” At least he used to say that.

Stories about markets may or may not bear any relationship to the truth. Creating narratives provides employment for commentators, and is mostly a harmless part of the entertainment industry. Of course, anyone who finds the true narrative will make a lot of money.

As well as entertainment and profit, there is a third use for narratives: they help us to organise our thoughts about – and survive – threats. Stories provide hypotheses which can be tested. Competition between stories can reveal part of the truth, often in unexpected ways.

The recent big bounce in markets has generated multiple explanations. “The market is mad” is an obvious one, given the grim economic news and the paucity of firm stories about vaccines. Here’s my narrative and, more importantly, what stories tell us about Covid-19 and how we are dealing with it.

Dystopian

Stock markets collapsed in March because investors could not see a way out of the crisis: an absence of narratives. Things looked dystopian – if not apocalyptic. As we have gathered more data, the future has become less murky. Even if the future is awful, it only has to be less dreadful than previously imagined for markets to improve.

We know how to “flatten the curve”. That’s the lockdown.

We know that opening things up, gradually, alongside a comprehensive test, trace and isolate regime, is the next phase, one that stands a chance of success.

Markets can now see several potential futures, each with varying degrees of plausibility.

During the early days of the crisis the only debate about the future was over how grim it was going to be. By contrast, the next phase of the crisis is about to arrive and comes with hints of positivity. And the risks are becoming more clearly defined. Risk is something markets are used to dealing with.

Just opening things up again without a proper testing strategy will be an exercise in politics over science. It’s a faith-based approach, rooted in the way in which the virus has, like everything else these days, become politicised. It’s extraordinarily risky. We know the US is flirting with this idea, we know Germany is not.

Brexiteers, climate change deniers and fans of Trump all have a similar narrative, one that says we should never have locked down in the first place.

All great lies come wrapped around a kernel of truth: in this case that kernel is the herd immunity strategy, followed, abandoned and denied by the UK government. Herd immunity could work, but we now know the potential cost in terms of lives and the economy – and the importance of test, trace and quarantine.

The potential for viral cycles, with renewed lockdowns, is high but can be mitigated by mass, well targeted, testing. Economies can opened be up gradually until the reinfection rate – we are all amateur epidemiologists now – starts to approach 1 again.

This phase will last until there is a significant pharmaceutical development. Either a vaccine or drugs to alleviate symptoms represents the end phase. That ending will be a happy one if it isn’t too far away, and the disease is either cured or turned into something that doesn’t carry much risk of serious illness or death.

Illiterate

Anyone involved in financial markets knows about mathematics. Sometimes even a bit of science as well. It’s obvious which governments consist largely of people who are terrified of arithmetic and are proud of their scientific ignorance.

CP Snow wrote in the 1950s about the “two cultures”, arts and science graduates who don’t know how to speak to each other. It’s worse than that these days: it’s a cultural narrative, something perfectly acceptable, to say “I’m no good at maths” .

We accept it in ourselves and, disgracefully, think it’s perfectly okay for our children to be mathematically and scientifically illiterate. They might just as well be illiterate.

The illiterate say things like “we are following the science”. And reveal their ignorance: there is no such thing as “the” science.

Politicians who don’t know how to talk to scientists take big risks: they treat model forecasts as certain outcomes and fail to prepare for contingencies.

They don’t know how to ask the right questions. If you do know science you can patiently explain how an “R0”, the reinfection rate, of 1.1 would overwhelm your health service by October. At 1.3, it is toast by June. Angela Merkel gives these kind of press conferences.

Non-linearity

A lockdown of six months will not be twice as bad as one of three months. It will be much worse than that: a mathematician would recognise the non-linearity. There is no short-term trade off between the economy and the health crisis, but, because of those non-linearities, there will be.

There’s a chance that we are through the worst. My narrative is optimistic. Much depends on the quality of leadership. Be grateful if you don’t live in the US, give thanks if you are in New Zealand.

Different countries with very different narratives. Consequential narratives.

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