Sunday, April 19, 2020

Death by PowerPoint

We’re at a stage in the pandemic, still early I believe, where the two main competing voices, scientists and economists, have started to wage a war* using charts and statistics. 

We should consider ourselves somewhat fortunate that here in Guatemala the fight against the virus is being led by the relatively independent and informed figure of the President, who appears on TV almost nightly to rattle off the top line stats, bless the country and periodically direct a premium rant at one particular group of compatriots whose behaviour really isn’t helping. 

In Mexico they have Dr Hugo López-Gatell and his hour long presentations. 

At school I recall peers whose essays were little more than an agglomeration of facts, put together with barely any argument or narrative thread. These people, I would note years later, turned to PowerPoint as their weapon of choice. Charts, charts and more charts. Mostly the sort that are difficult to provide a voiceover for without putting the audience into an induced coma. 

I would not advise you to brave the unedited version of Hugo’s presentation from the Palacio Nacional last night, but I will provide a quick précis. 

When not dealing in death by PowerPoint, Dr Hugo was telling ‘anecdotes’. The longest of these began with a detailed description of the human respiratory system, followed by smaller accounts of how each version of the disease tends to mess with it, the overall effect being to reproduce one of those first year college lecture scenes from an American movie. 

Dr Hugo’s charts, it would be fair to say, are not just walls of data. Sometimes they are saying something quite interesting, it’s just not what he is saying a lot of the time.  

For instance, outside the valley of Mexico, two of the main covid-19 hotspots in the country are Baja California and Quintana Roo, which suggests to me at least that the policy of keeping borders and beaches open may have added to the fatalities in Mexico. (650 and counting). Many unfortunates possibly imagined that Tulum was the place to to go to get away from it all. 

From Guatemala’s perspective, there’s also cause for concern about the larger clusters of infection very close to its own frontiers, not just around Chetumal, but oddly enough also in Tabasco, such that the relatively unaffected northern area of this country is now surrounded by swathes of red on Dr Hugo’s charts.

Dr Hugo is highly personable and knowledgeable, but not a great communicator. You would not want to be downloading his TED talks. 

And he pronounces the D in covid like Hannibal Lecter.  

He seems to know that the epidemic in his country is going to last exactly another six weeks.  

* increasingly against each other as much as against the ‘real’ enemy. 

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