How critical thinking can help us better understand the coronavirus pandemic

The first half of 2020 has been a difficult time for many of us. We have had to adapt to rapidly-changing circumstances that have altered nearly every aspect of our lives. And at the time of writing, we still don’t have a clear or commonly-agreed route out of this challenging period. We have all had to make considerable changes to our lives, and some of these changes may remain with us far longer than the virus itself.

The fundamentals of critical thinking can help us better understand the past few months and what may lie ahead.

First of all, most of us will have been surprised at the contradictory information given to us by our leaders in governments around the world, and the ‘science’ that is by no means clear and is not even agreed upon by scientists.

One day we are told masks do not help control the spread of the virus and the next we are told we must wear masks when outside.

One day we are told Drug A helps those who are suffering with COVID-19, and the next we are told it appears that Drug A may actually make matters worse for the infected!

One study says smoking may put us at higher risk of complications and death, and another suggests that smoking make actually protect us due to the nicotine!

One week, a leading scientific advisor tells us we must stay at home as much as possible, and the next week the very same scientific advisor himself breaks the rules that he is publicly encouraging and being paid a huge sum for in the process! A classic case of “Do as I say, not as I do”!

Governments do not have an easy task making decisions during a worldwide pandemic. But it is clear that some decisions have been made based purely on epidemiology, forgetting about economic factors. Other decisions have been made for economic or political reasons without thinking about the epidemiology. Different disciplines offer different perspectives, and good decision making takes all of them into account (or as many of them as realistically possible).

The biggest tension is clearly between the safety of humans due to the direct threat of the virus, and the safety of humans due to the severe economic and social consequences caused by lockdown.

That is, if we lock down for too long to save ourselves from coming into contact with the virus, the risks of serious mental health problems, social unrest, and death due to malnutrition begin to grow and possibly even outweigh the negatives from the virus itself. This is not an easy tension to diffuse, and different leaders have taken different decisions across the world based on cultural, economic and scientific factors.

What works for a Western country with an economic ‘safety net’ for all of its citizens and a high level of self-discipline clearly may not work for a country without such a ‘safety net’ or public health service and in which no money simply means no food.

Later on, when we can look back from relative safety, serious questions will be asked about the origins of the virus and how the immediate handling of it could be improved in future when such a scenario inevitably happens again. Clearly, in an age of international travel, international co-operation and trust is essential to defeat such an enemy in an efficient manner.

We may also see some changes to our societies in the longer term. For many years, the prevailing narrative was that the percentage of humans living in urban areas would continue to grow and grow, and the number of people living in rural areas would continue to decline.

It is quite possible that this will not now happen, as town and city centres fall into a period of decline due to distancing rules that make many businesses nonviable, as more people become accustomed to working from home, as more people order online instead of purchasing on traditional ‘high streets’ in town and city centres, and as the clear mental and physical health benefits of living somewhere peaceful and less densely populated where the risks of rioting and other forms of unrest are lower become more and more apparent.

Critical thinking can help us by encouraging us to do the following.

  1. Look for inconsistencies in information given by leaders and in the behaviour of leaders themselves. If you see inconsistencies, this is evidence that the leaders are less well-informed than we might like and potentially even negligent. Such people should not be trusted if they have a track record of spreading misinformation.
  2. Tread carefully when accepting information from media and social media sources as fact. Always err on the side of caution until enough information is known to make a well-informed choice or decision. In a fast-changing situation, new information comes along every few days that may alter our understanding of risk factors and solutions.
  3. Learn that disruption of this sort may quite realistically happen again in your lifetime. Perhaps several times. Be prepared for the next time it does happen, but without letting it cloud your overall life perspective.
  4. Protect yourself and your loved ones. How can you make your lives as virus-proof as possible? What lessons can be learned in your own work and family contexts to lower the risk of future financial hardship? Think of new habits such as working from home that may be worth adopting more broadly after the pandemic is over.
  5. Question prevailing narratives. Do not assume that popular opinion or government advice is correct. Check as many different sources as you can and do not be afraid to reach your own conclusion based on the evidence available.