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The real perils of policing ‘information’

If you do a web search for the terms “Nanogirl Ardern masks”, the first few results are for a video posted in early March 2020.

It features Dr Michelle Dickinson, the former prime minister, and the PM’s chief science advisor sitting down to “dispel some of the myths surrounding the coronavirus covid-19”.

Among the information is advice on whether to wear a mask, including the assurance that, if you don’t have symptoms, there’s no need to wear one.

While there appears to have been a collective loss of memory about many events of the past three years, you may recall this wasn’t the official line for long, and the government’s advice – and later, adamant instructions – went through a number of iterations as the pandemic progressed.

The video is an excellent example of the inherent dangers in the tendency to toss around labels like “misinformation”, “disinformation”, and “malformation” – because it could legitimately have been described as each of these at different times.

The truth is our government projected a great deal more certainty about how best to deal with the virus than was ever really the case. There’s an argument this was necessary to avoid the population’s panic graduating beyond hoarding toilet paper.

But it was a terrible decision on the part of mainstream – and especially broadcast – media to buy into the government’s assertion it was “the one source of truth” and take on the role of information police on its behalf. Because it’s becoming clearer by the day that “following the science” often involved cherry-picking studies that supported a political preference.

We may never get a full picture of how this played out in Aotearoa, but information now entering the public domain in other countries is instructive.

In the UK, for example, The Telegraph has begun publishing content from 100,000 WhatsUp messages between former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Matt Hancock and other ministers and officials at the height of the pandemic.

Among the revelations is that, early on in proceedings, the UK government knew the relative risk of the virus varied for different demographics [much greater for the elderly and already seriously ill; hardly any for healthy under-30s; approaching zero for children]. Given the level of global cooperation, there’s absolutely no reason to believe our government was unaware of this.

For whatever reason, though, there was apparently a decision to not be straight up with the public about it – possibly due to fears it would undermine a collective approach to the problem – and those who sought to share such information were decried as “conspiracy theorists” or worse.

The idea the virus didn’t leap from animals to humans in a Wuhan wet market but leaked from a lab in the same city was also declared a “conspiracy theory” in early 2020. In the past few days, however, several US agencies – including the FBI – have stated a lab leak in China is likely to be the cause of the pandemic.

As other aspects of the pandemic – and response to it – undergo radical reassessment in the near future, best wishes with managing your inevitable cognitive dissonance.

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