The Ministry of Guesswork

Johns Hopkins University concedes something that we’ve all suspected: we’ve undercounted virus-related deaths. People with familiar symptoms have died in places where testing has been inadequate or nonexistent. People have died in places where the testing has been available, but they haven’t been screened, and during a shortage, there’s no sense in using a diagnostic tool on somebody who can’t be saved. Hospitals noted a spike in cases of pneumonia in February and early March. We may never know how many of those patients were suffering from the effects of exposure to the coronavirus.

At the same time, the CDC suggests that a substantial percentage of carriers of the virus are asymptomatic and will remain so. In Iceland, where testing was done much more assiduously than in America, epidemiologists determined that half of those who contracted the virus did not get sick. Given the patchwork application of social distancing measures nationwide, its a pretty safe bet that a lot of Americans are walking around with the coronavirus and don’t know it.

I’d like to say that I hope they never know it, but what I really mean is that I hope they never develop symptoms. During an outbreak of a communicable disease — three times as infectious as the flu, according to a tenuous consensus that’s emerging — having an accurate count is everything. More than a month after the first death, we’re still struggling with basic numerators and denominators. We don’t know how lethal the coronavirus is. We don’t even have a clear sense of where the hotspots are. There’s good evidence that suggests that clusters exist, or have existed, in parts of the country where testing is scant and denialism is rampant. For years, we’ve taken it for granted that Big Brother is peering into our underwear drawer via the Internet and building comprehensive demographic and psychographic profiles of each of us. When we actually need some Big Data, it’s nowhere to be found.

Dark ages don’t happen because people are incapable of discernment. They happen because human beings decide, collectively, that they’d rather not know things than know things. Sometimes powerful people cloud our vision in order to obscure their misdeeds, or their incompetence. Sometimes ordinary people decide that clarification threatens cherished misapprehensions — blind faith in an institution, say, or a particular leader. There are practical (albeit pernicious) political reasons to minimize what we’re going through, and for the past two months, undercounting has been a powerful tool in the hands of the darkness-spreaders. Strategic ignorance is dangerous for the same reason novel viruses are dangerous: it has a terrible tendency to get out of control. It’s loose in the general population, and it’s spreading like an overturned bottle of ink.