The source is not the cause.
The symptom is not the disease.
Two simple truths that bear repeating and remembering in these times.
We live in a culture that focuses on curing the symptom but not understanding the origins of the underlying disease. We focus on the source without investigating the cause.
An example of this is all the money raised in the name of “finding a cure for cancer.” How much is raised to fund research on the cause of cancer? If we knew the cause, we could possibly prevent cancer, and maybe we wouldn’t need a cure.
Investigating the cause takes more time and patience, a willingness to unravel threads and look beneath the surface. We live in a culture that wants the quick fix and fast results.
For example, it’s easier and faster to get a cortisone shot in your elbow than to investigate the cause of your elbow pain and correct whatever compensation pattern is causing it (most likely in the shoulder, though possibly the hand/wrist, because nothing originates in the elbow).
The confusion between the source and the cause has been on display over the past week, in the reporting on the coronavirus.
Last week, the media reported on New York’s second confirmed case of the coronavirus, a man from New Rochelle, a suburb 25 miles north of New York City, who was hospitalized with the virus. He had been at his synagogue on the weekend of February 22/23 for a bat mitzvah and a funeral. Immediately, state officials closed the synagogue and told members of his community who had been at the bat mitzvah or the funeral to self-quarantine for 14 days.
The school where his daughter attends high-school shut down their high-school and lower school (where one of my nephews is in 3rd grade) out of precaution. Another school in Westchester that draws from that community (where I went to elementary school) also closed as a precaution.
Since then, many people from his community, including his immediate family, the neighbor who drove him to the hospital, and the rabbi of his synagogue, have tested positive for the coronavirus. If you’ve been following the news, you likely know that the “New Rochelle cluster” is the largest cluster of cases in the country. The protective quarantines and resulting school closures have ensnared many people I know, including my family members.
I’ve been watching closely — albeit at a safe distance — and have been dismayed by the sloppy reporting about this in the press. Multiple reports have referred to this man as the cause of the New Rochelle cluster.
That may be true, but it’s a big assumption to state as fact without any supporting evidence.
This man was the first in the New Rochelle community to show symptoms and require hospitalization. But that doesn’t mean he was Patient 0 in New Rochelle. His underlying condition may simply have made him the most easily-identified source.
Without investigating where, how, and when he was infected, and without testing everyone who was at the events at that synagogue in February, we don’t know.
Multiple epidemiologists have stated that because of 2–14 day window for symptoms to develop, it’s likely that many people are passing on the virus before they even know they have it. Some people never develop symptoms worse than a slight cold. Others never develop symptoms at all.
It’s possible that someone else at those events — or maybe multiple people — had the virus but were asymptomatic, and were in fact the case of the spread of the virus in New Rochelle. Or, at least a cause.
Causation is often not linear.
Assumptions Lead to Confirmation Bias
It’s not only unfair to this man to label him as the one responsible for the cluster, it’s also poor journalism.
The problem is that once you assume something is true, everything you see after confirms that assumption. This is called confirmation bias. So, once the media asserts that this man is at the center of the outbreak, we look at the new cases through the lens of how they are related to this man, instead of staying open-minded and curious about others possible ways they could have been infected.
There are many variables at play here; many things we don’t know. If we want to mitigate the damage here, we need to ask a lot more questions.
It starts with remembering that the source is not the cause, and the symptom is not the disease.
We need to look deeper for the answers.