Overwhelmed by the flood of virus news?
We were too.
Here’s how we made sense of it all, and figured out what to follow and what to ignore.
No one — other than surviving WWII veterans — has seen anything like this. Trade, movement, finance, education, labour, health, retail — there is nothing this virus isn’t infecting. And that includes news.
It seems the coronavirus ‘infodemic’ is also novel. By our estimation, at least half of the news now being produced revolves around this one issue. And not all of it is helpful. Some stories just induce panic-buying. Others (esp. from suspect sources) still downplay the danger. And that’s to say nothing of the disinformation rampant on social media.
It’s a vexing problem which has prompted us to formulate a structure for triaging the news deluge. We’re sharing it in case you find it useful too. Here’s what we’ve come up with. There are eight themes that we are following closely:
- Growth rates. The biggest unknown in most places right now is the size of this problem. The number of confirmed cases is vastly understated due to limited testing. This makes the problem seem smaller than it is. And has led to many spurious comparisons with other diseases. That’s why we’re focusing on growth rates instead. More specifically, we’re looking for stories about the daily growth in confirmed cases, the number of deaths, and of tests conducted. Without this growth context, the confirmed-cases count is actually just false information. And, like most false information, it undermines both analysis and action.
- Government initiatives. Mandated social distancing is the most powerful tool at society’s disposal for managing this outbreak. But it is not being wielded well. Confusion remains because of poor communication, fake news, and evolving mandates. For example, there’s confusion about whether working from home is optional. Or whether ‘herd immunity’ is the UK’s official strategy. Or whether to close schools. Or whether to visit a doctor if you’re feeling sick. Which is why we’re constantly looking for and sharing the latest mandates and instructions from across the globe, as they evolve.
- Global trajectories. Given the staggered spread, and the ‘novel’ nature of this virus, we can and should make the most of lessons already learned by other countries. This is especially important for places like the US, the UK and Australia, where governments have been slow to act. Fortunately — with news coming in from all over the world — we have a unique opportunity to see the different ways in which this outbreak is being managed everywhere (and the accompanying results).
- Public figures and institutions. One thing we all still need to wrap our heads around is the vulnerability of our leaders and institutions. As individuals fall ill, as institutions are incapacitated, there will be new complexities to reckon with. For example, what happens once a national leader gets sick? Or if parliament can’t meet to pass legislation because of social distancing guidelines? Or if a senior religious leader dies? We’re watching closely to understand where new shocks might emerge from.
- Epidemiology and protocols. So far we’ve broadly outlined the reasons to stay informed on a base level. But with COVID-19, a depth of understanding is even more important. This means understanding: how the virus works; how the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test works; how long testing takes; where, how and when to get a test; what the early symptoms are; what prognosis to expect; what immediate actions to take, such as informing the people around you; how to deal with parents or children; and when a vaccine might be expected.
- Market impact. How do you price something you can’t measure, have never seen before, and can’t avoid? Erratically. Once the pandemic’s growth rate hits an inflection point, people will be able to model and predict its magnitude and impact. Then, assets will get reassessed and repriced with some degree of logic. But until that happens we’re likely to keep seeing hypnotic market gyrations, thrown-against-the-wall fiscal and stimulus measures, and ongoing demand contraction. One of the other key areas we’re looking at is how well companies are making the transition to remote working. This has implications not only for the short-term, but also for the new normal that we’ll emerge into once the crisis is over.
- Analyses. With all this noise out there, it’s also vital to step back and see the bigger picture. And one of the key issues we’re finding is that much of what’s being passed around as informed comment is anything but. So what we’re on the lookout for is credible analysis from experts who don’t have vested interests. A good example of this is the critique of the UK’s #herdimmunity thesis. Such analyses are essential for overcoming the flaw of false equivalence that keeps cropping up in the news.
- Weird stories. There is obviously nothing funny about the outbreak. But even so, humans wouldn’t be human if we didn’t bring a bit of our absurdity to the situation. Like the people in India who are drinking cow urine to stave off the virus. Or the people in Iran who were licking a holy shrine. These stories may seem trivial in the grand scheme. But, as the cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro once said, “knowing the absurd helps define our sense of hypocrisy, and our sense of the things we should be skeptical about”.
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