Thursday, 10 September 2020

Understanding risk


One of the reasons why ruling classes remain in power – at almost all times and in almost all places – is that they are good at deflecting blame. One of the most obvious recent examples is the way in which so many have fallen for the lie that housing shortages or NHS waiting lists are the fault of immigrants rather than being indicative of a systemic failure by successive governments to properly provide for the population of the country. Another is the idea that the poorest – those on benefits, especially – are somehow to blame for their own misfortune, rather than a system which prioritises the protection and accumulation of the wealth of the minority.

I fear that we’re seeing another example in the way that some groups are being scapegoated for the rise in coronavirus cases. That’s not to deny that some people are thinking only of themselves, or being reckless in ignoring guidelines, but the desire of so many to stigmatise others and demand ever greater punishments for transgressions is a very effective way of diverting attention from the incompetence of those who’ve got us into such a mess in the first place. And, without seeking to excuse the transgressors (who must, of course, take some responsibility for their own actions), concentrating on them is letting the decision-takers off the hook.

It’s understandable that people look at guidance from government and see inconsistencies and illogicalities. Why, for instance, is it considered ‘safe’ for a year group of 30 to interact in school, but ‘unsafe’ for 10 of that same group to hold a party in a house? The truth, of course, is that neither is ‘safe’, and governments (both in Wales and in London) have been misleading us when they claim that one of them is. There are risks in both cases, but increasing the level of social contact increases the level of risk, and those who do both are thus more likely to help spread the virus. Governments have prioritised work and education (whether that’s right or wrong is another question), and the policies are effectively based on a judgement that allowing both of those adds enough (probably more than enough) risk of spread, so that other types of social mixing still need to be controlled. But instead of treating the population like adults, they have simply issued dictats wrongly claiming that some activities are ‘safer’ than others. The result is that what people hear is ‘because I say so’ rather than a reasoned argument. Couple that with a government which both takes a cavalier approach to obeying the law itself and overlooks obvious and repeated transgressions by its own members, and why wouldn’t some people start to believe that the rules are ‘open to interpretation’ in ways that suit themselves? It’s a rational response.

With a new virus circulating to which there is, as yet, no vaccine or cure, and to which some people show no symptoms despite being infectious, then ALL social contact is potentially a risk of spread. But it’s also true (as the deniers point out) that ALL human activity inherently carries a level of risk, whether there is a pandemic or not. The question which arises is a simple one to ask but an extremely difficult one to answer: what level of risk are we willing to run, individually and collectively? That is the question facing ministers and, every time that they decide which activities to allow or disallow, they are taking a risk with an unknown number of lives. Instead of being honest with the population and having a sensible conversation about risks and consequences, they resort to wild and inaccurate claims that everything they are doing is ‘safe’. It isn’t. It’s a difficult conversation to hold, but to put it bluntly just how much disruption to everyday lives of the many is one life worth? It’s a utilitarian question, but I suspect that the answer which many would give in the abstract would be rather different if they knew that the one life was their own, or that of someone close to them.

Telling young people not to kill their granny, as the English Health Minister did this week, is a complete cop-out. What we need is not more scapegoating and evasion but a more honest conversation about risk. Expecting an honest conversation didn’t ought to be a risible proposition.

1 comment:

dafis said...

"What we need is not more scapegoating and evasion but a more honest conversation about risk. Expecting an honest conversation didn’t ought to be a risible proposition"....Fair comment. However identifying behaviours among certain groups,such as younger people engaged in heavy drinking or the close family cultures of some ethnic groups is not of itself harmful. What is harmful is failing to communicate clearly to those groups what risks are involved. Telling young people not to kill their grannies is frankly useless as a message on T.V but would be more effective when engaged in a face to face conversation with a group of youths before they go off on the booze. That said, when it comes to being stupid or just twp no one group has a monopoly. Groups of older men get pissed and are just as much "in yer face" as the younger generation.

Maybe the media stimulated some of this behaviour when they harped on about "when are we going to be free ?" Well the short answer is that we are free to infect our families, neighbours etc right now and possibly kill a proportion of them. Between a flip flop government and a hysterical media there is much scope for reflecting on the last 6 months as a period of shabby leadership and equally shabby reporting/ comment and any success is down to the original willingness of most of the population to be compliant and the sterling efforts of rank and file NHS teams across the country.