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Pandemic Moment: your guide to critically thinking about information

Questioning Authority

Throughout this guide, I have stressed the importance of the following way forward.

1. Be on the lookout for current information, possibly changing daily.

2. Pay closer attention to information about our own geographic region, covered by the global, federal, provincial and municipal public health authorities.

3. Try to isolate your information sources to the relevant health authorities.

However, as the pandemic progresses across our landscape Minority Voices tend to gain more credence.

It is possible that in the coming days, governments will be looking for an (exit) strategy, some way of pulling back from "lockdown" and strident social distancing measures.  Already, President Trump is speculating that the pandemic will (March 24) wrap up in America in time for Easter.

While our primary focus should be paying daily attention to the public health authorities in our own backyard, minority voices will grow and must be reckoned with in a careful manner.

If we agree that President Trump is now searching for an exit strategy, by promoting his Easter plan, it is not hard to see that his position on the covid-19 arc is presently a minority one.  Unfortunately, this particular minority view has potentially infiltrated the office of the Surgeon General.  This publicly serving office is mandated to inform the public and provide advice to lawmakers, advice that is rooted in the facts of current knowledge.

In an earlier report, (March 19) Aamer Madhani and Tom Davies of the Associated Press picked up on Jerome Adams' politicization of his office.  Here is a portion of their story that ran under the heading of "Surgeon general's TV praise of Trump earns his 'star' label."

At the same news conference where Trump praised him, Adams scolded the media for 'bickering' and 'partisanship' in their coverage of the administration’s missteps."

In this excerpt, we see that the Surgeon General has transitioned into the political area by:

1. complimenting the President's health as being better than his own, which is out of step with appearances

2. echoing Trump's believe that Americans should be more concerned with the seasonal flu

3. defending the President against his political adversaries

4. criticizing the media

In an intelligent reaction to minority voices, in this case the President of the United States, it is vital that health agencies remain non-partisan, apolitical, reporting within the scope of their competencies to inform lawmakers.

Given their potential for harm, we should therefore remain vigilant, keeping these minority voices in perspective.

Let's contrast the minority view expressed by President Trump with the minority view of Dr. Richard Schabas, former Chief Medical Officer of Health for Ontario. Dr. Schabas held that position for ten years. Prior to this he was Chief of Staff at York Central Hospital during the SARS crisis in 2003.

In terms of a reliable human source of information, Dr. Schabas is exceptionally well qualified, with relevant experience and is positioned in our political geography.  Furthermore, his views have been issued within the current timeframe.

His minority viewpoint was widely reported March 10-11.  A reported excerpt reads as follows:

"Ontario’s former chief medical officer of health Dr. Richard Schabas cautioned that COVID-19 does not register as a dire global crisis, based on the number of cases and deaths reported so far. He noted that the daily number of new cases peaked at 4,083 in February, as the outbreak in Hubei began to wind down. “Over the past month, the geography of COVID-19 has changed, but the global numbers have, if anything, become smaller,” Schabas explained. It is still possible that outbreak may become a pandemic, “but as the days pass and the global patterns stay the same, this becomes less and less likely,” he said."

A more complete picture has been logged in a Globe & Mail opinion written by Dr. Schabas. (March 11)

A few days later, (March 22) he expanded on his minority view in a CBC interview.  Dr. Schabas goes on to say that there has been an overreaction to covid-19 across the globe.  In his estimation, the rate of dying from covid-19 is not more than an average influenza outbreak. He questions the usefulness of the unsustainable measures to "flatten the curve." From his perspective, the theory of "flattening the curve" is based on weak evidence and in his opinion, the virus is not going anywhere.  Therefore efforts should be directed at the distribution of health resources to manage localized outbreaks, while trying to normalize life by paring back the "lockdown' effect.

How should we think about minority views?

In essence, the process resembles the original approach to thinking critically about information.  The human authorities should be competent in what they are speaking about and act according to their professional roles.  We have established Dr. Schabas' competency as well as the considerate and consistent manner in which he talks about the problem.  His position has remained constant, nor is it politicized, it is given in the current timeframe and he speaks representing our political-geographic region.  Also of importance, Dr. Schabas has the presence of mind to acknowledge that his position is a minority one.

In contrast, President Trump's position on the problem (March 18) swings radically in many directions, he has invoked the problem against his political rivals, and has encouraged the Surgeon General to step out of the medical information mantra, and into the political ring.

President Trump's position instability is on display in the following contrasting directions.  On March 24 he delivered an address speculating that America's battle with the invisible enemy would wrap up by Easter.  Yesterday, (March 29) the President extended the social distancing measures to April 30, stating, "'The peak in death rate is likely to hit in two weeks,'... 'Nothing would be worse than declaring victory before the victory is won.'" USA Today also reported that the President simply dismissed his Easter target as an aspiration.  

It is possible that Trump's prediction for a peak in the covid-19 death rate and his Easter timeline aspiration were drawn from the same box of fortune cookies. 

In consideration of credible minority views, it seems prudent to keep them in mind as the arc of the virus changes and as the political authorities prepare to shift their strategies.  While the advice and direction of the health authorities should be sought out and followed, we should also reserve a place of attention for the credible minority views, as the emergency evolves.

Sweden: going against the tide

With 27 countries in the European Union, Sweden is paving its own, unique, pandemic strategy.

Dr. Richard Schabas, featured above, had the following to say in the (linked) CBC interview about his assessment of government reactions to the crisis.  Fundamentally, he believes governments around the world have over reacted.  I have transcribed his words, "Governments are caught in a high stakes poker game where they can't fold.  When someone else raises the bid, they just have to match that.  I don't know where these measures are going to end."

In Sweden, while social distancing is encouraged, shops and pubs are open, along with primary schools, and people continue to freely socialize on city streets and in city parks.  Writing for the Globe and Mail, (April 3) Paul Waldie says, "The Scandinavian country is pursuing what Prime Minster Stefan Lofven calls a 'common sense' response to the pandemic by keeping the country largely functioning and aiming health measures at the most vulnerable.  'We who are adults need to be exactly that - adults. Not spread panic or rumours.' Mr. Lofven said in a televised address to the country last week. 'No one is alone in this crisis, but each person has a heavy responsibility.'" 

High schools and post-secondary institutions remain closed.  (However, they may re-open soon.)  Although gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited, and Swedes are encouraged to work from home, all measures are voluntary.  In his article* (Sweden has faith in its pandemic response. Europe? Not so much), Waldie partially attributes the country's unique position to its peculiar political culture and its citizens' high degree of trust in its government and society.

Although there is some opposition within the country, the Swedish response to the crisis seems to mirror Dr. Schabas' assessment of how the virus is actually tracking.

From a perspective of thinking critically about information, the case study of Sweden adds credibility to the minority report of Dr. Schabas.  It is always useful to search for additional evidence, especially for unpopular or minority points of view.

It goes almost without saying that we should pay close attention to the dominant view.  However, as the "lockdown" measures wear heavily on the world's population, and as governments begin to look for ways and means to pull back from their "over-reaction" our current attention and internal assessment of the minority report will prove valuable.

It may provide reassurance that governments have acted, and continue to act in our best interest, (given the credibility of Dr. Schabas and the case study of Sweden) and it may dissuade us from panic, nihilism, and moral despair, as the world's nations change direction, ultimately listening to the minority voices.


Waldie, P. (2020, April 3). Sweden has faith in its pandemic response, Europe? Not so much. Globe and Mail, p. A7.

Rome, in a time before

If the tide turns, if the measures are unsustainable, and governments are compelled to surrender a portion of the vulnerable populations, the minority report may provide reassurance and the proof of another intelligent way forward.

Indeed, in 386 B.C. Rome was overrun by barbarians, and was forced, as Livy tells us, to make a not dissimilar way forward.

As there was no hope of defending the city with the handful of available troops, the decision was taken to withdraw all men capable of bearing arms together with the women and children and able-bodied senators into the fortress on the Capitol: from that stronghold, properly armed and provisioned, it was their intention to make a last stand for themselves, for their gods and for the Roman name.... if the few men still able to fight, if the Senate, fountain-head of true government, could escape the general disaster, it would be tolerable to leave in the city below the aged and useless, who had not, in any case, much longer to live.  It was a stern decision, and to make it easier for the commons to bear, the old aristocrats who long before had served as consuls or celebrated their Triumphs said that they would die side by side with their humble compatriots, and never consent to burden the inadequate stores of the fighting few with bodies which could no longer bear arms in the country's defence. (Livy, The Early History of Rome, p. 385)

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