Doctor-turned writer Bruce Powell argues we should have accepted the uncertainties about COVID from the start and not quibbled about getting vaccinated.

If 2021 has shown us anything, it’s that sh#t happens and anything is possible. 

Bruce Powell

Unfortunately, that single truism has our puny brains turn to putty. The unknown brings us an acute sense of discomfort, driving often irrational, destructive choices. Moreover, we would rather be lied to than confront the nature of our fragile existence.

Life’s ambiguity fuels our anxiety and magnifies our perception of threat. Studies have shown that even hard-nosed investors would rather pay a financial penalty and know an outcome quickly, than wait. 

“I’d rather just know that I failed, than wait any longer.” 

Remember saying that while waiting for exams results? 

Neuroscientists tell us that our amygdala light up during uncertainty, multiplying the brain’s estimates of adverse consequences. Of course, there was a time when that anticipation had an evolutionary benefit. Cynicism and avoidance might once have conveyed survival attributes, but not now. 

Now, we must embrace that aroused state, examine our anxieties, to make the wisest choices.

We have evolved to ignore large portions of our experience to just focus on what is important. We have come to make ‘guesstimates’, apply rules of thumb and use heuristic methods to produce solutions that are sufficiently pragmatic to meet life’s deadlines.

However, 21st century humans have rapidly evolved to become consumed by the ‘what if?’. The luxury of time, granted by our modern lives, has afforded us the chance to confront more of our unknown. The mysteries of life are now pondered at great length, inescapably, over a multitude of media.

It is in that context that we welcomed COVID into our lives. 

“Why? What? How? An act of war or an act of God? Is it real at all? Wouldn’t it be easier to deny its existence?”

Almost two years on and despite millions of dead, we still question COVID’s significance. We rage at the denial of our rights to travel and work, embracing dogma and superstition, irrespective of the cost. We crave absolutes, however illogical and nonsensical they may be. We refuse to gain any solace in science, since she never provides 100% guarantees. 

We have learned that “God DOES play dice with the universe”, and there is a randomness that supersedes all else. We reject the pragmatists and the truth-tellers, replacing them with soothsayers and narcissists. We sleep better at night with a resolution of the uncertainty in our hearts, not the truth. We allow politicians to portray an illusion of certainty and yet we know in our hearts that there is none, only probabilities.

The consequences of this illusion of certainty are an unintelligible strategic response to crises such as COVID. My own family, between the four of us, have had three different vaccines, thanks to waivering policies in the quest for absolutism. When the booster arrives, at least two of us will get a new immune experience, since an AZ boost is apparently a “no-go”. 

So, what are we to do?

We must not fear the flat dark waters of our lives. We must take a deep breath and plunge below the forbidding surface, gaze upon the good and the bad of the reality that lies beneath. We aren’t all similarly responsive, not all of us are keen snorkellers. 

The least tolerant of us are also those who resist data that challenges that fear. They are most easily anxious and least easily reassured. 

Someone once said, “It’s not a race.”

Ironically, vaccination is quite a lot like a race. No one knows exactly how things might end. All we can do is prepare well and line up early at the start. We might stumble and fall, or triumph gloriously. That is the ubiquitous nature of any race and uncertainty is part of that confronting conundrum.

Western Australia remains locked in thanks to our reticence to lead, to accept uncertainty and engage our community in a comprehensive, compulsory vaccination program at an early stage. 

COVID is not anyone’s fault, but our refusal to acknowledge the uncertainty of the path ahead absolutely is. Health executives, media moguls and politicians alike, must lessen our fear of chaos, not stoke it. 

In the future, we must embrace uncertainty and have faith in our processes. We must communicate in absolutes, not exploit our anxieties. We must accept uncertainty, and when necessary, jump in with both feet, since that is all that we can do. We may not relish the discomfort at the time, but in hindsight, the element of surprise might make our successes all the sweeter.