/ 29 July 2020

Covid logic beats ‘irrational’ human logic

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The gold standard is complete suppression of the virus, which can be done without massive economic disruption by using rapid testing, effective contact tracing and complete isolation of infected cases. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)


A mistake people often make is applying human logic to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is a big error because the logic of the virus is all that counts. Some high-profile people — former cabinet ministers, major media personalities, retired academic leaders included — get this wrong. The aim is to educate, not embarrass, so I will refrain from naming them.

Here are some examples of applying human logic.

In the early days of lockdown when shopping was limited, one of the banned purchases was open-toed shoes. Some high-profile people commented on how this was “irrational” — how would buying sandals be worse for your health than buying sneakers? Good question, if you’re a human. The logic of the virus is: if people mix less, the virus spreads less. So restricting shopping choices reduces trips to the shops. People spread it less. Virus loses.

Another example: business hospitality stays are allowed, but not leisure ones. The “irrational” argument surfaces again. Why would a person staying at a guest house for business purposes be at less risk than if they were doing the exact same visit for leisure? Again, this is human logic. The logic of the virus is: if people mix less, the virus spreads less. Restricting who can use hospitality businesses reduces mixing in shared accommodation. Virus loses again.

The only way human logic applies in both of these cases is that a total shutdown is so damaging economically that exceptions that do not significantly add to social interaction can be allowed.

People who know a lot about education have also been puzzled about why only specific grades were allowed to go back to school. We can argue about the educational challenges for those not allowed back but the Covid-19 logic for allowing a fraction back is clear. Distancing is one of the most crucial tools for slowing the spread of Covid-19 and a crowded classroom, with class sizes of 50 or more in many of our fee-free schools, is no way to achieve distancing. Although the evidence is that children seldom get the disease in its most severe form, children are great mixers. Even if they are not super-spreaders, schools full of children increase the risk of spreading the disease to school staff and families.

Another one that illustrates how many really do not get the logic of the virus is the “loophole” that appeared on social media recently. You can’t visit your relatives but you can ride around all day in a crowded taxi, as long as you wear a mask.

Looking for loopholes is exactly the wrong idea.

This is not like looking for loopholes to save on your taxes, which doesn’t hurt anyone else (well, maybe it does but we can discuss taxes another time). The point of regulating is to play to the logic of the virus. Full taxis are not a great idea but if everyone wears masks and windows are opened (a long shot in winter — but a 2019 UCT study, “Natural ventilation as a means of airborne tuberculosis infection control in minibus taxis”, shows this is a good idea), it is in the same class as business hospitality stays and buying selected kinds of shoes. It is a compromise in a world where we can’t do absolutely everything to slow transmission.

The gold standard is complete suppression of the virus, which can be done without massive economic disruption by using rapid testing, effective contact tracing and complete isolation of infected cases. We missed the boat on that one so second best is a cocktail of measures: masks, distancing, ventilation, hygiene and isolating as many people who are infected as possible.

The more we all understand this, the less the government needs to regulate and enforce social behaviour.

I explain in another article (“Unpacking the myths and misunderstandings in the Covid-19 vacuum”) why reducing Rt, the average number of people an infected person infects, not only reduces the peak number of cases but also the time it takes for the pandemic to pass. The aim is to fake the effect of a less infectious disease.

We need to understand this if we are to get out the other side with minimum damage. For this reason, the problem is not that the government is trying to enforce too much, it’s that there are too many lobbies winning unhelpful concessions. Funerals may be a big thing in our culture, but so was the mass northwards Easter migration and we managed to cope without that.

If we want “normal” back again, in whatever post-pandemic form that will take, we need to be serious about understanding and fighting the logic of the virus. Unlike that of a virus, human logic is open to change.

Looking for loopholes? Why? Do we want the virus to linger as long as possible?

The government’s communication strategy could do with some work because understanding the logic of the virus will go a long way to putting it behind us.

The taxi ventilation issue is an example where people with good academic and communication skills could help out with government communication deficiencies. It is not a simple issue; when Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula tried to explain the difference between taxi and airliner ventilation, he managed to confuse me, even though I had already researched the issue.

Former cabinet ministers, media personalities and retired senior academics: you are opinion leaders. You need to understand this. Yes, the government gets it wrong sometimes — maybe even often. But the general idea is not wrong. Rather than undermining the government’s tactics where the logic of the virus doesn’t fit human logic, embrace the fact that we need collective action that is informed by the logic of the virus, not human preferences, to suppress the pandemic. Use your voice to push for effective action and come up with your own imaginative solutions.