The recent COVID-19 outbreak is a prime example of what is wrong with our centralized institutions. The response from the World Health Organization (WHO) has been a complete disaster and even if you follow Hanlon’s Razor “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity”, you are hard-pressed to attribute everything that has gone wrong to stupidity. Some of it?—sure; all of it?—unlikely.
Let us first take a look at some examples of what has been advised by the WHO during this pandemic—this quick summary should hopefully dispense with the little bit of trust some people still have left in the WHO.
Advice That Kills the People you Love
On January, 14 The WHO posted this Tweet,
stating that they have not found evidence for human-to-human transmission of the virus. This is, as we know now, factually wrong, but it also shows a lack of understanding asymmetries—something journalists struggle with as well. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
Now fast forward to Mar, 2. At this point—since human-to-human transmission is possible—we have a global pandemic. This is exactly the situation the WHO should excel in and give clear advice to governments and people. The situation is serious and good measures need to be taken to save lives. So on what focuses the Director-General of the WHO (Tedros Adhanom)? Stigma and harmful speech.
Yes, according to the WHO “stigma, to be honest, is more dangerous than the virus itself.” It turned out that the most dangerous thing about the virus is—surprisingly—not the stigma, but the virus. And because of awful advice and misinformation like this, the situation in most of the western world was getting worse and worse. In addition to staying home, social distancing, and better hygiene, people with common sense were advocating for wearing masks—something which seemed to have worked well in a lot of Asian countries. But as always, the WHO had to make the situation worse by announcing that you don’t need to wear a mask. To this day (April 13, 2020) the WHO is still not recommending the use of masks for the general public: “If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.”
We will later see why their arguments “there is not enough evidence to know if masks work” and “only if you are sick or near sick people” are not acceptable. So, instead of recommending early precautionary action, the WHO reacted not only way to late, but even then, they did almost everything wrong.
On January, 26—that is only 12 days after the WHO said there was no human-to-human transmission—Joseph Norman, Yaneer Bar-Yam, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb published their paper (a must read)“Systemic Risk of Pandemic via Novel Pathogens – Coronavirus: A Note.” This paper is a great example of how good advice in a situation like this should look like. Not only is clearly laid out why this virus is potentially dangerous, but also what to do under the huge uncertainty concerning this novel situation.
In short, the precautionary principle implies that we should constrain mobility because it is better to be safe than sorry. This simple line of reasoning—we should be cautious when it comes to new viruses we don’t understand—seems to be too difficult for the WHO or government officials to understand. It is important to note that we have to react before it seems necessary and if the measures work, it will look like we have overreacted. The earlier you take the right measures, the more effective they will be, and the less serious the virus will seem in hindsight.
Masks and Asymmetry
For those who are still unsure: yes, you should wear a mask, especially when being in closed public spaces like public transportation or supermarkets. If you want to read some studies and summaries on how and why masks are useful, I can recommend this project by Jeremy Howard.
However, my main point is about asymmetries in decision making—something Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks a lot about but it seems like bureaucrats and journalists are incapable of understanding it. There are still some people arguing that it has not been proven that masks work or that “more evidence is needed”. This is the wrong way to think about it—there is a huge asymmetry at play here. The cost of being wrong (we say masks work but they don’t) is extremely small compared with the reward if we are right (masks work and we safe lives). Under this asymmetry, the burden of proof lies on the “masks don’t work" people. They need to provide the evidence and as long as it is not sufficiently clear that masks don’t help (or are harmful), we should all wear them.
It is also important to keep in mind that a mask mainly prevents the one who is wearing it from spreading the virus. Remember: my mask protects you, your mask protects me. It is nevertheless invalid to claim that only sick people need to wear masks because asymptotic people can also spread the disease.
Another argument against masks is that advising the public to wear them would leave health care workers without them. It is true that doctors, nurses, etc. should be prioritized but there are still two flaws in this argument. Number one: people can make there own masks at home, which is better than nothing and does not reduce the available supply for health workers. Number two: doctors will need less masks because fewer people are going to get infected. (I assume here that masks work because the shortage argument is otherwise invalid—you cannot say masks don’t work but doctors need them.)
One last argument—put forward by the WHO and some journalists—is that people should not be advised to wear masks because they would develop a false sense of security and ignore all the other measures. This line of reasoning is so insane that I cannot believe it is being put forward.
First, you could use the same argumentation against seatbelts or condoms—“don’t use them, they give you a false sense of security and are not 100% perfect”—which is obviously ridiculous. Secondly, I find this argument insulting to the general public. Exactly those incompetent bureaucrats and journalists that are (partially) to blame for this situation, now say that the public—the common man and woman—should not be trusted with masks because they might become careless or use them wrong. This is unacceptable.
Journalists handled this situation as bad as humanly possibly—that is similar to the WHO. To get an idea, read this thread but keep in mind that bigger media outlets like The New York Times did not do a better job:
Even after this discussion, some people still believe that the WHO is only incompetent and not malicious or corrupt, so let us destroy this last bit of hope:
In this video Dr. Bruce Aylward (senior Advisor of the WHO) dodges the questions about Taiwan in an extremely awkward manner. For context: Taiwan is not recognized by China as a sovereign country, but rather seen as a part of China; and since the WHO seems to be under the massive influence of China, Taiwan’s membership is being denied. But not only that, the WHO seems to be ignoring the existence of Taiwan. There are some other theories concerning how and why the WHO acted the way it did, which all seem to involve China. However, I don’t want to discuss them here since it is not our main focus and some of them are rather crazy.
This essay was written with the intent to 1.) show how awful WHO’s (and journalist’s) response to COVID-19 has been, 2.) articulate how to think about these problems correctly—precaution, asymmetries—and 3.) make clear why these people should be held accountable for what they did. It is a fact that the misinformation spread through official channels by the WHO and the mainstream media has cost a lot of people their lives. This is not a small mess-up but rather a complete failure of the system. Since I do not believe that these people will be held accountable, I want to at least do my part and urge everyone not to trust these institutions—WHO, News-media, etc.—ever again. In times like these, clear individual thinking is required and blind trust in authorities is (literally) deadly.
With this in mind I hope you and your family are healthy and thank you for reading my essay.