Muddling through the pandemic
“Keep calm and carry on” was printed on millions of bright red posters in 1939 to help prepare the British public for anticipated air raids in the Second World War. Few ever got posted, but the graphic and dozens of funny innovations on it have become a staple of pop culture in our own time.
It’s still pretty good advice.
Statistician William Briggs tells us to stay calm in the light of the wide exaggeration of badly understood numbers. Holder of a Cornell Ph.D. in statistics, Briggs brings readers through a dizzying set of equations, most of them based on the famous theories of eighteenth-century mathematician Thomas Bayes, to a sober and simple conclusion:
“There is no evidence to suggest that everywhere will be as horrible as Wuhan or Lombardy. There is lots of evidence it will not be as horrible. There is instead evidence that many places will be like Huanggang and Shanghai, and somewhere in between, and that there will be only a few Wuhans and Lombardys. Look all around Wuhan and the rest of China and East Asia for confirmation.”
Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, in his bestselling book Thinking, Fast and Slow, warns us to avoid making up our minds on the usual basis of the vivid story or the startling TV image. As one clever saying puts it, “The plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘data.’” We should cultivate statistical thinking, Kahneman says, to “right-size” our fears. And if we did, we would see things in perspective as Briggs tells us to:
“Some 37,000 people a year die horribly and painfully in motor vehicle accidents. The only way to prevent this is a complete shutdown of the nation’s roads, highways, and byways…. [Moreover,] about 22,000 people this year died wheezing and strapped to machines of the flu. The only way we could have prevented this was a complete shutdown of all social gatherings, all restaurants, all schools, everything. Every time you go outside you are selfishly exposing your neighbors.” We’re not freaking out over those perennial killers, so why over covid-19?
Mass media and politicians thrive on crises so we will pay more attention to them. We leave aside the normally absorbing elements of our lives—you know, the everyday stuff like jobs, families, hobbies, charities—to click and view and cringe at the latest horrible news. But what is all our anxious watching—and fretful clucking on social media—accomplishing?
Wash your hands all day. (You should be doing that anyhow.) Live a healthy lifestyle. (Ditto.) Comply with social distancing (if only to help other people not freak out). Cope with whatever your superiors have decided for you (job-wise, school-wise, daycare-wise, restaurant-wise). Help other people cope who can’t cope as well as you can. And focus on what is indeed the main stuff of your life: job, family, hobby, charity.
Keep calm and carry on.
To be sure, there are some nutty religious folk who think it is somehow more spiritual to defy governments and public health officials. (Or perhaps they just want to emulate their favourite politician, Donald Trump—as Jerry Falwell, Jr., was doing in keeping Liberty University open until the state mandated its closure.)
Rodney Howard-Browne, the notorious pyramid-schemer and Florida preacher (in)famous for his role in the Toronto Blessing, recently encouraged his congregation to shake hands as he mocked the appeals for social distancing by bragging that his school turned out missionaries, not “pansies.” Howard-Browne, not known for his exegetical acumen, seems not to see the difference between God testing our faith (a good thing) and our putting God to the test (something Jesus himself abhorred).
No, spiritual machismo is not the same as confident equanimity. So, as good citizens, let’s comply with the public health guidelines…but without losing our focus, let alone our composure.
“Do you never worry?” asks lawyer James Donovan of Rudolph Abel, a convicted Soviet spy on trial for his life in the movie Bridge of Spies.
“Would it help?” is the arresting reply.
The Apostle Paul would have approved of this laconic answer. In prison, writing to Christians facing persecution, he gives this counsel:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7).
We should note that this familiar quotation breaks into Paul’s letter a little too late. Just before it starts, Paul utters a very short phrase (just three words in Greek) that is crucial to Paul’s confidence: “The Lord is near.”
Yes, the coronavirus is coming to your town. But the Lord is already there. God hasn’t been taken by surprise. God is not underprepared for what’s coming. And God will achieve good purposes through this difficult time.
May we all then be truly faith-full so we can be faithful: standing at our post, doing the good we can during this Blitz, keeping calm and carrying on.
For we know under whose Crown we all live.