coronavirus

Facts and Figures, Emotions and Reason

Facts: Who knew?

I don’t have many phone apps, but one I love is called Facts. Every day, I receive a unique fact in white lettering on a pretty background. The facts tend to be trivia, such as “A group of rhinos is called a crash.” Or, “Metallica is the first and only band to have played on all 7 continents.” (Who knew?)

Yesterday, the fact read, “We keep believing things, even when we know they’re wrong. Social manipulation can alter memory and extend the amygdala to encompass socially mediated memory distortions.”  

This message seems a dire warning of the dangers of social media. We all want the facts—truth. And the truth is hard to discern amidst a rampant pandemic that has so far killed over 154,000 Americans. My friends on Facebook want to make sense of what is happening, and in doing so, post and repost graphics and statements that seem contradictory at best, and dead wrong at worst. It reminds me so much of the years of the HIV epidemic, where fear took over common sense and critical thinking.

“Mathematics allows for no hypocrisy and no vagueness,” said the French writer Stendhal. Mathematics is said to be pure, logical, apolitical. But statistics… that is entirely different. Statistics uses math to reveal patterns and relevance. Statistics can be manipulated, presented in a half-light. Statistics can be used to support an argument, but can also be used to refute the same argument. Who to believe? And when you have a pandemic in an election year, with emotions running high, statistics are tossed about as truth. When I start seeing statistics and patterns of numbers presented on Facebook by my friends, I begin to wonder what they are trying to say or prove.

For example, one colleague in late April posted a chart from the CDC showing that the combined COVID-19 and pneumonia and flu deaths were about 94,000. She gloated that the CDC “lied” because there were not 94,000 dead from just COVID, as stated in the news, but that the total included other disease states. I politely questioned her statement, and pointed out that the current COVID death toll of 94,000 at the end of April was not the same as the 94,000 figure she was using. The CDC data she was using was from early April. In a matter of a few weeks, the death toll had skyrocketed. An easy mistake to make, but she was comparing incorrect numbers. Instead of thinking about this, she accused me of driving an agenda to match “my own narrative.” Yet, while I have not ever posted anything of a political nature on social media, that’s all she was doing on Facebook.

Many are now using statistics on social media to do just that, support a narrative, usually political. It makes me wonder if, during the HIV scandal years, if there had been such a contested election and polarized politics, would we be manipulating statistics so much and ignoring the public crisis? Would we tell people not to wear condoms as we now flaunt not wearing masks? Would we deny the number of people dying? We didn’t have social media then, nothing to fuel the flames of conspiracy.

Here’s another example that prompted me to write this blog:

If you look at the dots on this map, such a “small” death toll does not seem too bad. The poster also insinuates that such a death toll is not worth “turning our lives upside down,” though she does not say what this means (simply wearing a mask? Or losing a livelihood?). Ask: what message is she trying to say? What could be misleading about this?

Now think of the HIV epidemic, which wiped out half of our community. We lost 10,000 people over a number of years. That would barely be visible on this map. One lone little grey dot. Yet, it decimated us. It led our community to advocate and this led to permanent changes in how blood is collected, tested and distributed, for the betterment of all.

And now think of this map from this perspective: with 1,000 Americans dying daily, it’s as if three loaded jumbo jets are crashing every, single day… for months.

What’s missing from Carrie Ann’s map is time. And this is important.  Here’s more perspective: 154,000 dead from COVID in four months is almost as much as the 157,000 dead in over 20 years of the Vietnam War. Top medical experts are now saying we could hit 200,000 Americans dead by fall. This is about one-third of all US deaths from HIV in the past 38 years.

Now get away from a snapshot of a map, and look at trends below:

The virus is exploding exponentially in number of cases. And eventually, in number of deaths, until a vaccine is approved. Or not? Could it be that cases are exploding and will continue while the death rate might level off at some point?

So why do people latch on to a map, or one graph, or fail to compare, contrast, and critically review what is posted and reposted on Facebook or other social media?

Perhaps it does has to do with the amygdala. The little organ in the brain responsible for the “fight or flight” reaction. The little organ that is considered the seat of emotions. It filters perceived and real threats from outside us, to help determine our next actions. Do we run away from danger? Do we stand and fight? We see political posts, and fearful posts about COVID, and we stand to lose our business or loved ones, or even our favorite elected official, yet we no longer can fight physically from a computer. Instead, we attack via posts. Whatever we do, it’s usually an emotional response.

What overrides the amygdala is the grey matter, the frontal lobe, the prefrontal cortex, the seat of reason. Far too many people seem to be allowing the grey matter to take a back seat. Instead, the constant barrage of posts on social media act like physical threats to us, and we react emotionally by twisting statistics or simply reposting something without stopping to ask: Is this true? Does this present facts in the right perspective? What is the source of the post? Are they credible? Could I be wrong? What is a better way to say this, or present this?

Rational response vs emotional reaction

Or more importantly: are my beliefs (political, religious) filtering the statistics and making me use them to support my beliefs or “narrative,” or will I allow the information to challenge my beliefs?

One community member posted this, which sarcastically challenged the statistics people had been tossing about, and put things in perspective:

Even if the fatality rate of children in school due to Covid-19 is “only 1%”, there were 56.6 million kids enrolled in school in the US last year. 1% of that is 566,000, or just slightly less than the population of the entire state of Wyoming. But it’s fine, right? It’s just 1%, right?

When you first enter my house, you may notice a framed picture hanging on the wall. It’s one of my favorites. “Pallas and the Centaur” by Renaissance artist Botticelli shows the Greek goddess Pallas Athena, goddess of knowledge and wisdom, with her hand on the head of a centaur. Her beauty and cleanliness is in contrast to the horseman’s hirsute body and tortured facial expression. The mythological centaurs were believed to be lusty, passion-filled creatures, all emotion. While there are many interpretations, I regard the painting as meaning knowledge and rational thought can and should override baser emotions, like lust, anger and hatred, for the betterment of humankind.

Maybe I’m just feeding my own narrative, but I think we could use more critical thinking when we use social media; more rational thought than emotional reactivism; and more recognition that one life does matter. It’s not all about statistics. Each of the 154,000 represents a loved one, and we still have time to save the other 50,000 or more in danger.

“If you can’t find the right answer, first you identify all the wrong ones”. -Joan Clarke, The Imitation Game

The Hemophilia Community: Unmasked

Last night Doug and I watched the 2019 movie “Midway,” which had spectacular CGI aircraft battles. We somberly recognized the extraordinary sacrifices made by the young men who served. This after we also watched the Ken Burns’ series on Vietnam on Netflix. Different eras, different situations but what remains constant is the incredible sacrifice of Americans to serve and protect fellow Americans.

Which is why it’s hard for me to comprehend why some Americans are resistant, almost militant, to wearing a mask in public to protect against coronavirus. Even more, why anyone in the hemophilia community would resist. Of all people, we know what it’s like to be caught in an epidemic, to be victims of public health breaches. We’ve had horrific sacrifices, and those of us who escaped HIV by a year or so are forever grateful and respectful to those who lost their lives.

But lately on Facebook some hemophilia colleagues questioned what good would wearing a mask do, and others defiantly claimed they would not wear one in public. “I’m an American,” one woman wrote; she had worked for a hemophilia specialty pharmacy. “It’s my constitutional right not to wear one.” This, in white letters on a screaming red background. Another, an industry rep in Florida, wrote that he didn’t know anyone with COVID, thought it was overblown, didn’t see any difference in life in his corner of the world, so he was not going to wear a mask in public.

Beyond the actual act of going in public without a mask was the “unmasked” attitude: I’m an American and I’m doing whatever I want.

This led to a barrage of replies and comments about what it means to be an American, especially that it’s not always “about you.” The woman replied, “You do you and I’ll do me.” An extremely selfish comment to make during a pandemic, with over 125,000 Americans dead in a few months (more than twice the number that died in nearly two decades of fighting in Vietnam).

I kept thinking about our Hemophilia Holocaust. HIV is much less contagious than COVID. You can only catch it in certain ways. COVID is incredibly contagious. Yet during the HIV era, you did not hear from people screaming about their rights to do what they wanted, and not be inconvenienced by taking precautions. It made me wonder, what if we substitute the word mask with condom?

“I’m an American and it’s my constitutional right not to wear a condom if I don’t want to!” True, but what do you risk? Disease, unwanted pregnancy, spreading disease to others. Spreading the disease to babies. You never hear anyone talk like that about condoms. Why are we even applying constitutional rights to something that is about protecting public health? This was never done before. Is it because it’s an election year? Has politicizing a public health crisis changed the way people view public health now?

Well, Florida is now being considered an epicenter of COVID-19. It had almost 10,000 new cases in a single day, the highest in the country. Florida is going backwards, because it reopened, and people did not take precautions. A good friend of mine there took advantage of the reopening, got together with her family for the first time in months at a restaurant for just a couple of hours. Almost everyone got COVID, and some are very sick. She has completely changed her mind about wearing masks; it’s now imperative.

And 36 states have escalating cases. My state, Massachusetts, is holding steady, but we should be declining, with all that we know about this virus. Look at New Zealand: it’s considered virus free now, because it locked down, people wore masks and social distanced, and they united as a country to fight this common enemy.

Why is America now the leading country with the highest number of cases of COVID? Because so many are not taking precautions, like wearing a mask. A simple sacrifice that certainly does not infringe on any of your freedoms. It’s a lot less inconvenient than using a condom. And the simplest of sacrifices compared to those who fought–and died–for our freedom.

To be an American to me means honoring the sacrifices made by those who died protecting our freedoms: in World War II, in Vietnam, the doctors and nurses who have died recently, the patients and yes, babies, who have died. Remember the famous words: It’s not about what your country can do for you, but about what you can do for your country. Wearing a mask protects you, but it’s not about you. It’s about protecting others, stopping the spread. Sacrificing a slight inconvenience to help preserve the common good. Uniting and adopting known ways to stop the spread of this virus. With the freedom and rights of being an American come responsibilities.

What does it mean to you to be an American in a pandemic? What have you learned from the HIV holocaust? What can you do to stop the spread of this insidious virus? Some things to really ponder over the upcoming fourth of July weekend. Appreciate what our medical community is enduring as more people require hospitalization; empathize with those who have lost loved ones. Watch “Midway,” “Pearl Harbor” or some other good war movie. You will see what real sacrifice is, and what being an American really is about.

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