The Editor’s Desk: Hindsight is wonderful

Let’s not Monday morning quarterback the coronavirus pandemic while the game is still being played

Monday morning quarterback. Hindsight is 20/20. Seemed like a good idea at the time. It’s easy to be wise after the event.

There’s a reason these phrases exist. It is fairly easy to look back on an event or decision after the fact and — with the benefit of the passage of time — see how things panned out, then point to what could or should have been done instead to produce a different, usually better, outcome.

The trouble is that those events and decisions play out in the here and now. A disaster unfolding in real time demands action immediately, not in six weeks or six months or a year, when you can really get a handle on things. A government decision made now might have unintended repercussions down the road, but they aren’t always apparent, or predictable, when the decision is made.

Take the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the state of war between the allied powers and Germany after World War I. If history is written by the victors, then that goes in spades for peace treaties, and in the immediate aftermath of the war the Allied powers weren’t particularly inclined to look at possible consequences. “We’re going to squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeak,” said one British politician, speaking of what the treaty was meant to accomplish, and the phrase was eagerly taken up, which doesn’t suggest that many people were prepared to put up their hand and say “You know, we might want to think this through a bit more carefully.”

You can’t draw a straight line between the Treaty of Versailles – the rise of Hitler/Nazism – World War II, but the treaty didn’t exactly help in stopping that trajectory; something that can clearly be seen with the benefit of hindsight. Which brings us to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the increasing number of people who are questioning many of the measures taken both to combat it and to prevent its spread.

The whole pandemic has been little more than a tempest in a teapot, is their conclusion, as they point to the fact that “only” 321,000 people worldwide are reported to have died from COVID-19 (as per the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronovirus Resource Center, May 19, 2020). Look how many people died of the Spanish Flu in 1919 (50 to 100 million), or the Black Death (bubonic plague) around 1350 (200 million), or the smallpox pandemic of 1520 (56 million)! We’re overreacting!

Comparing the deaths thus far from COVID-19 (which are probably under-reported in many countries) with the death toll from past pandemics isn’t quite the winning argument its proponents think it is. For one thing, no one today is dying from the Black Death in 1350 or the Spanish Flu from 1919; those pandemics are over, whereas COVID-19 is still very much with us.

And when the dust has settled on COVID-19 (as it will one day), and the final reckoning is made, who is to say what the numbers might have been if lockdowns, quarantines, closing businesses, physical distancing, and all the other precautions had not been taken? If, when the coronavirus first reared its head, governments has simply stayed status quo, letting people go on with their lives, how many people would have died? A few thousand more? Tens of thousands more? Millions more? We’ll probably never know, although it’s interesting to note that jurisdictions that brought in preventive/protective measures early and fast have, for the most part, done much better than those that didn’t.

Those measures were taken in the moment, as reaction to something unfolding in real time, and history will be the judge as to who was right and who was wrong. In the meantime, let’s not start Monday morning quarterbacking while the game has barely started.

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