Coronavirus credibility gap - analysis

“The ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year – and … to explain why it didn’t happen.”

Scientists develop a vaccine against the coronavirus disease in Saint Petersburg (photo credit: REUTERS)
Scientists develop a vaccine against the coronavirus disease in Saint Petersburg
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In his acclaimed 2018 biography of Winston Churchill, Churchill: Walking with Destiny, Andrew Roberts writes of an interview in 1902 when Churchill, then a newly minted Conservative MP, was asked what he thought were the qualities desirable in a politician.
“The ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month, and next year – and... to explain why it didn’t happen.”
In the age of coronavirus, those are qualities that would be helpful not only for politicians, but also for scientists, health officials and those working in the media. For this is a time of great uncertainty, and nobody has the answers.
As Lior Edelman, the outgoing president of the World Medical Association, said in a KAN Radio interview on Monday regarding the second wave of coronavirus striking countries across the globe, “The most important lesson in looking at the world and seeing what is happening is that with corona, we never know what will be the next step, what the next day will bring.”
It’s a virus of which the world simply does not have enough information to make any predictions, Edelman said. And those who do predict, or try to foretell, will – as Churchill intimated – likely later have to explain why what they predicted didn’t transpire.
Back in March, when the coronavirus began upending our lives and there was a shortage of readily available masks, health officials went on air and said the masks were not very effective anyhow.
Until they were, and the public was ordered to wear them and fined if they did not.
On March 18, no less a personality than Michael Levitt, an American-British-Israeli physicist who won the 2013 Nobel Prize for chemistry, said in a KAN Radio interview that he would be “surprised” if the number of coronavirus deaths in Israel surpassed 10. As of Monday, the number of coronavirus deaths in Israel stood at 473.
One cannot blame the health officials for saying what they did about the masks, or Levitt for his prediction, because they simply did not know. This is all new. Everyone is learning on the go.
And that is what is precisely so unsettling. Modern man likes certainty; it gives us a sense that we are in control. Which is why science holds such an exalted position in modern culture – it provides certainty, truth.
Who is a modern man going to believe? Politicians? Certainly not – they bend the truth to fit their own interests. Religious leaders? Also no – because they are blinded by their faith. Journalists? Hardly – they often push their own agenda. But scientists – scientists are the address for certainty.
Until now. With the politicians sending out contradictory messages about the coronavirus, with religious leaders often giving advice going against public health decrees, with journalists reporting one thing one day, and the opposite the next, who is the public to look to for guidance and truth?
The scientists. Except that the science on coronavirus is imperfect and very much still a work in progress. The scientists and health officials heard in the media are often as wrong on the pandemic as the politicians and pundits.
But the scientists are trying. Research is taking place at a frenetic pace, which is admirable. Except this has a downside as well. Since the world is so impatient for answers, research is placed out there in the public domain – and decisions are being based on it – without that research having been properly vetted.
In the race to find a cure for coronavirus, who has the time to wait a year for research to go through the proper peer review process before seeing the light of day. So there have been cases where scientific articles found their way into the public discussion that were based on faulty research.
But this, perhaps, can be forgiven – the argument being that desperate times call for shortcuts in research to come up with a cure.
What is more difficult to excuse, however, is media reporting on the crisis that is not based in fact and just adds to the confusion. For instance, on Monday, there were a number of reports of hospitals already breaking under the weight of coronavirus patients, with Hadassah-University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem reportedly actually turning away patients.
Except, according to the hospital, it did not. For a brief time, the hospital was swamped in its emergency room, and a few patients were directed to its sister hospital on Mount  Scopus. But that was temporary; it was not as if the coronavirus ward could not absorb any more patients and that the worst-case scenario – that hospitals had already become overwhelmed – had arrived.
According to a Central Bureau of Statistics survey this week, only 47% of the public said they had either a great deal or some confidence in the government’s ability to deal with COVID-19. This figure was down from 69% who said they had confidence in a May 26 CBS survey and 71% who answered the same question on May 7.
That means there has been a 24% drop in public confidence in the government in two and a half months. And one of the reasons for that lack of confidence is surely because there is a credibility gap, because the public – a result of mixed messages and policy flip-flops – has lost faith in the government’s ability to cope with the crisis.
But the difficulty is not only with the government. The problem is that with so much information out there, and some of it misleading or wrong, intentionally or not, it is increasingly difficult to know whom to believe – an acutely unhealthy situation for the country to be in while dealing with a virus of mammoth proportions.