Epistemic myopia

A COUPLE of months ago, when Covid-19 cases had just started to surface as a significant threat in Pakistan, my timeline on Twitter/Facebook used to have many people asking if anyone had a relative or friend who had had the disease, or who was currently suffering from it, or who had died after contracting the virus.

Pakistan’s Covid-19 numbers were small at the time. But many countries were already facing the full fury of the pandemic. China was still in the thick of trying to manage the first wave, some of the European countries were going through a very tough period, and Iran was also going through a high-spread, high-daily-mortality phase. The news from these countries, through mainstream and social media, was quite readily available and was being shared on social media by Pakistanis too.

But there were also plenty of people, perhaps a majority, who were still asking if people knew of anyone who had Covid-19. There were also people who were arguing that we would not have as many problems as people in other, especially European, countries because (a) our population is younger, (b) Asian constitutions are different, (c) we have higher immunity levels due to living in a more dangerous environment, and /or (d) our summers are much warmer.

Today, even though we are still in the middle of the first wave, my timeline on social media platforms is filled with news about people who have tested positive and about many who have lost a loved one to the virus. With almost 120,000 confirmed cases and over 2,300 deaths at the time of writing, recent polls have been quoted that show that there are plenty of Pakistanis who still think Covid-19 is not a serious problem and that fears about it have been exaggerated.

Why do people, even today, think that the threat of Covid-19 is exaggerated?

Diversity of beliefs is a fact in humans. We have differing values, goals and views of the world. We have different background information. Hence, the diversity in beliefs is understandable, in certain areas at least. But when there is plenty of scientific and empirical evidence available on an issue, to continue to believe the contrary is a problem that needs explanation. When we knew what was happening in the world around us, and knew thousands of people were dying in countries as diverse as Spain, Italy, China and Iran, how could we hold on to the belief that the virus would not be as destructive to Pakistanis?

Why did it take for someone in people’s social circles to die or fall sick for them to believe in the gravity of the threat that the virus posed? Why do people, even today, think that the threat of Covid-19 is exaggerated? The world has already lost 400,000 plus people; millions are sick. Why do we need for a neighbour, friend or relative to fall sick and/or die to know that the virus is dangerous?

Diversity of beliefs, even when some fly in the face of evidence and fact, might still not be an issue. There are some people who believe, even today, that the earth is flat. So be it. If they want to continue to believe this, despite all the evidence and access to relevant information, there is not much that we can do about it. In this case, their beliefs are not likely to cause harm to others. There are no externalities for others. But in the case of believing that Covid-19 is not a threat or that it is a hoax, there can be consequences for others. If a person believes that the Covid-19 threat is exaggerated. and goes around without a mask or does not keep physical distance from others, he/she can fall sick. This will likely be a burden on the health system. But, more importantly, the virus might spread due to careless behaviour as well. This causes harm to others. This becomes problematic. Your beliefs are now causing harm to me, and I have to have a way of stopping this.

Clearly, the state and community have a role to play here. The community has a role as it has an interest in ensuring the negative externality from one person’s behaviour does not impact others. If a person goes around without a mask and/or without maintaining a distance from others, the latter are at risk and it would be appropriate for the community, through peer pressure and threats of ostracism, to ensure compliance with best practices, even if the community cannot have any impact on the belief that a person might hold or continue to hold.

The state has the backing of the law. It has the mandate to look after the interest of every citizen. It has every right, in such cases of significant negative externalities for others, to create laws and SOPs that demand compliance and that can punish deviance. In our case, the bigger tragedy has been that the state has been non-decisive for too long and has dithered. And this dithering has cost us and is costing us in terms of a higher rate of spread and rapidly increasing numbers of the infected.

Why people need a relative to be infected or to die from the virus to believe it is dangerous, or why they continue to hold beliefs that fly in the face of science and empirical evidence, is beyond the scope of this article. There is literature on epistemic vices that might explain some of this. But if such beliefs harm others, as they are doing in this case, the state has a role to play. It has to protect citizens from the negative effects of another citizen’s actions. Our state has failed to do its duty on this count. It is not just a debate about whether there should have been a lockdown or not; whatever the choice made, by not introducing clear SOPs in time and by not ensuring compliance, the state has failed and is failing the majority of its citizens.

The writer is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives, and an associate professor of economics at Lums.

Faisal BariJune