The Brief // By Ben FrankelOf (Flawed) Models and Policy Decisions; and a New Hydroxychloroquine Skirmish

Published 13 July 2020

Last week, in the face of the increase in the number of infections in Florida, Texas, Arizona, California, and, around the world, in Israel and Brazil – although, as Derek Thompson notes, the number of infected individuals needing hospitalization, and the number of deaths, have not increased correspondingly — questions were again raised about the right balance of risk and benefits of measures such as economic lockdowns. Beda M. Stadler, John Lee, and Christopher Snowdon forcefully argue that the decision to impose devastating lockdowns was driven by panic – worse, by an uninformed panic: “An early maintained but exaggerated belief in the lethality of the virus reinforced by modelling that was almost data-free, then amplified by further modelling with no proven predictive value,” in Lee’s words. Olga Yakusheva offers a counterargument.

We live in a politically polarized time – a time when many feel an even stronger need to avoid what Leon Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris write that “when people feel a strong connection to a political party, leader, ideology, or belief, they are more likely to let that allegiance do their thinking for them and distort or ignore the evidence that challenges those loyalties.” The result is that a great many Americans now see the life-and-death decisions of the coronavirus as political choices rather than medical ones — for example, whether or not to wear face masks or maintain social distance.

Another example is whether or not hydroxychloroquine should be used to treat COVID-19-infected patients. The issue came to the fore after President Trump heard about the drug on Fox News, and began aggressively to promote it as the biggest “game changer” in medical history. A reluctant FDA in March  issued an emergency authorization to use the drug in COVID-19 patients, but two weeks ago revoked its authorization after all controlled clinical trials — randomized, double-blind trials – have concluded the drug offered no benefits to COVID-19 patients, while increasing the risk of heart problems. Laurie McGinley and Josh Dawsey write that the White House is again pushing for the reauthorization of the drug following a study – criticized by several scientists as flawed – which says some early-infection patients have benefitted from the drug.