Fighting the Covid Virus Is Like Looking For Knowns When Unknowns Predominate

Known Unknowns

Photo by Edwin Hooper on UnsplashThe former Secretary of Defense of the United States, the late Donald Rumsfeld, was fond of talking about Known Unknowns and Unknown Unknowns, whenever the topic of planning for the military operations came up. In essence, what Rumsfeld meant that the post 911 world was characterized as a terrain where there are something’s that we know as unknowns and there are other situations where we simply do not know that we do not know. So, planning for Known Unknowns was easier than thinking ahead when we simply did not have a clue about the uncertainties that lay ahead. According to Rumsfeld, what complicates matters is that when we don’t even know what is unknown, then we are like the parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant, groping around, looking for clues on something that we do not even what.

While Donald Rumsfeld was much maligned and the subject of both praise and criticism for being a “war hawk”, his rather poetic characterization of the world in the early 2000s has relevance to the present “fight” against the Coronavirus. For instance, when Covid first struck, it was an Unknown that we confronted, and doctors and researchers alike scrambled to find appropriate responses. This was during the time of the First Wave in 2020 when the world was thrown into chaos and confusion resembling a medieval age rather than the 21st Century world of advanced technology and developed scientific tools and methods. Indeed, the First Wave of Covid was like a “bolt from the blue” to all of us and we were simply blindsided when it came to responding and reacting to the then evolving catastrophe.

However, with time, vaccines were developed and the Unknowns, though present, mutated (just like the virus did and continues to do so) to Known Unknowns. So, we had a “grip” (or so we thought) on the disease and governments worldwide touted vaccinations, masking up, isolation, quarantines, and travel bans, not to leave out the lockdowns, as a reaction and response to the infection, introducing us to terms like “flattening the curve” and so on. Indeed, there was a time during late 2020 and early 2021 when many nations, India included, engaged in triumphalism and jingoism, claiming that the “war against the virus” was won. Moreover, as spring 2021 arrived, there was consensus worldwide about the efficacy of vaccinations and talk soon turned into vaccination rates and coverage, rather than lockdowns and other drastic measures.

This is when the Second Wave unleashed its brutality and all of us were caught like Deer in the Headlights with no protection and nowhere to run. So, the Unknowns returned and worse, this time it was the Unknown Unknowns where we did not even know that we did not know with the result that we were simply clueless and helpless. As nations scrambled for a response, we were at the mercy of forces beyond our comprehension and dependent on the technological tools for assistance and relief as the focus was now on arranging beds, Oxygen cylinders, and medicines. The Second Wave was so ferocious that health systems collapsed and fatigued medical personnel found that despite their training and experience, they could not do anything except prioritizing whom to save and in what way. Indeed, for anyone who lived through the Second Wave, it seemed like the World was Ending.

Having said that, we did emerge from the Second Wave, though battered and bruised, and clung on to the hope that the Knowns would soon triumph over the Unknowns. For instance, we knew that the vaccines were the Knowns against the Unknowns, and that social distancing and masking up, were effective in containing the spread. The famous science writer, Carl Sagan, always used to say that “science was like a candle dispelling darkness” and this was case during late 2021 when we listened to the doctors and the scientists as if they were Demigods with clues and foresight like Soothsayers. Indeed, for a while, we were again in Known terrain where we could “see into the distance” and peer into the future with certainty. So, again the Known Knowns and the Known Unknowns were in balance, leading us to hope that the worst was over.

Now, as we enter 2022, it looks like the Unknown Unknowns are back and how!! As the virus mutates at an alarming speed, outpacing our response and reaction, it looks as though wearied and wary, we are again staring at the Unknowns being more than the Knowns. Whether this is the New Normal or whatever we call it, it is clear that the virus is “not done” with its potency or potential to wreak havoc. So, what should we do now? Should we simply “give up” and wait it out, or should we continue to find the path to the Knowns. This is perhaps the biggest challenge to science and technology since the time of the Renaissance and an “assault on reason” since the time of the Enlightenment from which we emerged from the Dark Ages. Let us hope that we do not relapse into another Dark Age, fighting an enemy that changes shape and shifts form and evades our best weapons. Donald Rumsfeld, sure, would have been glad to see his poetic characterizations vindicated now.


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