Coronavirus & Human Nature

(Mar/20/2020)


We are living through historic times that call for unparalleled and drastic collective action. Though some of us are not willfully considering the severe implications that the Coronavirus pandemic presents, we need to remain prescient about a few key pieces of this crisis: the protection of vulnerable demographics, the overall economic impact of a prolonged pandemic, and, most importantly, that this is a trial run (probably the most important trial run in human history) in terms of emergency preparedness.

In regards to human nature, people (singularly, collectively, and reflective of these, governmentally) generally exhibit two traits that will greatly hinder our efforts to contain and eliminate the COVID-19 outbreak:


1) People believe bad things will never happen to them

2) People are not proactive, but rather reactive 


We are at the early stages of an unprecedented global crisis and it is crucial to realize that we are our own worst enemies. People are social creatures and the idea of self-isolation, being relatively unproductive, practicing social distancing, and keeping limited physical contact runs counter to everything we are currently acclimatized to. But in serious times we need to readjust our understanding of the world in order to adapt to and eliminate systemic risk. This is why I fully support the measures various Western governments have adopted in terms of business, health, and economic assistance. 


This is such a unique crisis that we have to put politics and ideology on the sidelines and understand that this will require massive government intervention to alleviate the suffering and hardship of innocent individuals. This is difficult to stomach as a right of centre individual, but it is simply something that has to be done to maintain social order, ensure market stability, and give people peace of mind that we will return to normalcy after this is through. If this requires the temporary suspension of civil liberties, in addition to historic intervention into the economy, then that is something we conservatives need to accept to weather the storm. The benevolence of almost all Western governments during the last few weeks is a testament to this being temporary as opposed to permanent. And though I am not particularly thrilled to see Trump and Trudeau at the helm of the North American continent during this outbreak, I’m hoping they will put their egotism and ignorance aside and just listen to their health experts. 


We should probably be pushing for the government to do much more still (in terms of widespread testing to understand the scope of the outbreak, creating more hospital beds for the waves of people to come, further restricting small and medium-sized gatherings, and to individually assist those in our community who are high risk) by heeding, and indeed exceeding, the advice given by internationally respected organizations such as the WHO, CDC (15 Days to Slow the Spread), and Health Canada.


If we all embraced a scientific and evidence-based understanding of our current situation it would be a much shorter, and markedly less painful, ordeal to overcome. 


The Naivety of a Status-quo Existence

“People are not computers. We don’t evaluate security trade-offs mathematically, by examining the relative probabilities of different events. Instead, we have shortcuts, rules of thumb, stereotypes, and biases...the problem is that [these] can fail us [because] technological evolution has vastly outpaced our evolution as a species, and our brains are stuck with heuristics that are better suited to living in primitive and small groups.”

It seems that the main stumbling blocks towards containing the Coronavirus are the simplistic tropes that willfully ignorant people throw into the social landscape (out of laziness, selfishness, ignorance or some combination thereof). These generally fall under the lines of: “I’m healthy, and if I get it I’ll be fine”, “this isn’t any worse than seasonal flu”, “this is a government hoax to sell vaccines”, “we’ve experienced other outbreaks and we’re all still here”, and “this isn't going to stop me from living, we’re all going to die someday”. These sentiments can be described as hovering between borderline criminal recklessness at one end (depending on who you are potentially exposing) and shockingly proud ignorance on the other. To take such a cavalier perspective about a global pandemic is to completely ignore a large body of scientific evidence and to simultaneously disregard the well-being of your fellow citizens and most likely YOUR loved ones (most especially the high-risk demographics i.e. the elderly, autoimmune sufferers, and the chronically ill to name a few). Your inconvenience, your desires, and your shortsightedness do not permit you to openly infect others with impunity.

We have to truly understand that this is not some run of the mill virus that will simply pass without much effort. In the absence of a concerted action plan we can realistically expect that, in the United States alone, 214 Million people will contract COVID-19 sometime in the next year of which 1.7 million may die. Admittedly the mortality rates are low when compared to something like SARS or Ebola, but they are also substantially higher than that of the seasonal flu. So although it may appear relatively harmless at first glance it is significantly more dangerous than most people are anticipating. 


This is a highly communicable virus with a substantially increased likelihood of mortality in certain populations. Thinking it will not happen to you is no longer the question, rather it is “when will you get it” and “how serious will it be for you and those closes to you?” This is why I am greatly appreciating the government using its power to limit large gatherings and thereby exponentially reduce the risk to their respective citizenries. It must be hard for our leaders to balance an economic implosion on one end (i.e. Massive surges in unemployment/bankruptcy/social program funding/stock market crash/supply chain breakdown) and individual rights/a free society on the other. In this early stage, we see Western governments trying to walk the line between liberal-democratic principles and emergency measures reminiscent of a wartime scenario. It is quite remarkable that we are, as of this writing, being given the luxury of choosing to go along in willful solidarity (as opposed to draconian measures being employed in China and to some extent Italy). We have the opportunity to do the right thing, without coercion, and we should all embrace this reality before more extreme measures need to be imposed upon us. 


The status quo no longer applies for the foreseeable future and we need to shift our thinking from an “it couldn’t happen to me” fantasy to a “what can I do to help stop it?” mentality. Willful ignorance is not going to lessen the stress on our health care system, help families that will be out of work, or protect vulnerable people from contraction. Again, we can be our own worst enemies and do nothing at all, or we can all face this with the knowledge that we can reduce the intensity and length of the outbreak by acting in concert. 


Overreaction in the Eleventh Hour

“It is hard for modern people living in 1st World countries to conceive of a pandemic sweeping the world and killing millions of people, and it is even harder to believe that something as common as influenza could cause such widespread illness and death.”
The 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic: The History and Legacy of the World’s Deadliest Influenza Outbreak

If this situation has proven anything it is that we are truly unprepared at every level for an emergency such as this wherein everyone is affected relatively equally. 


Individually we are very reluctant to cede our creature comforts, social interactions, and financial interests. At an economic level, we are resisting the increasing necessity of shutting down large portions of the economy to isolate the virus (with relatively good reason to some extent, as it is bleeding untold hundreds of billions from the market, but in the long run keeping them open could be more damaging than closing them). And governmentally we have shown that our health care supply chains, our compensation programs, and the willingness to act decisively are weak at best. Further still, it shows just how fragile our civilization can be given the right threat. 


But at the same time...why would we have seen this coming? It is by its very nature an unpredictable (in terms of timing, not probability) event that we are forced to react to. I do not fault particular political parties or politicians for failing to foresee this, that would be an unreasonable position. But, what we can predict, with 100% certainty, is the reality of emergencies much worse than this arising in the future. This would require an acknowledgment of our shortsightedness and a doubling down on preparedness at all levels. 


Before the onset of this pandemic, household monetary savings are near all-time lows and debt levels at all-time highs. Additionally, most people are unprepared for natural disasters that are likely to affect them directly, in the short term future, in their geographic area. This means that, on top of being financially and materially unprepared for emergency events, people have a gambling optimism that nothing bad will happen to them. This is not even to mention the unquantifiable mental health angle of this outbreak and the ability of those with problems to act rationally in a crisis.


The Candian government's snail-like initial response to the virus was comically representative of human nature in its totality. We waited weeks to shut down our borders (despite credible warnings from various medical experts and health organizations) because “that won’t happen in Canada”, “it would be too costly for Canada” and “that's not who are as Canadians”. We were slow to close the educational systems despite the high threat of viral communication, and, cutely at this point, PM Trudeau offered an initial package of $1 Billion in economic relief (in federal politics, even in Canada, $1 Billion is a rounding error). Furthermore, and in hindsight (something human nature is much better at realizing than foresight) we should have been saving government revenues for hard times like these (basic Keynesian theory that most governments pretend to employ), but instead, we ran up huge deficits for shameless pandering campaigns to achieve electoral success. Knowing full well that we were overdue for economic instability because of market cycles at a bare minimum...and what would we trade now for a classic recession of the past?


And how much will the Coronavirus cost Canada over the next year? True, we would never have socked away enough cash to cover the totality of the event, but, if kept on the Harper track of 2015, we would not be nearly as bad off as we are poised to be. Once again everything is great until it isn't. And now we’re staring down the barrel of a greatly depreciated Loonie, a stock market crash, extremely cheap oil, unprecedented mass unemployment, health care system overload, reduced trade and production, and at least an economic recession. This is not to mention the projections for Coronavirus itself in terms of deaths and long term disabilities. 


Human nature is to react rather than be proactive, and the toilet paper memes perfectly embody this irrational thinking. Bottled water, hand sanitizer, meat, batteries, and of course toilet paper, seem to be the hottest sale items of the last 10 days. If the experts are to be believed then we are in this for at least one year and a stockpiled chest freezer with only meat won't last you a few months for a standard family with a healthy appetite. People are being inundated with images of empty shelves on their screens and are presumably getting scared they’ll be without. The bulk purchasing of items is an acute overreaction cued by media-driven fear (borders closing, food shortages, overcrowded hospital potential) to the pandemic as well as a shining example of human reactivity. Empty shelves only indicate a bottleneck of supply and not shortages. 


A great lesson for us to learn about the Coronavirus crisis is that we need to refocus government efforts on mitigating disaster as opposed to promoting false visions of prosperity. 


Saving > Spending


Foresight > Hindsight


Risk Assessment > Damage Control

Conclusion

“This is a very strange emergency [and] the most effective contribution you can make to your own well being, and for the well being of others, is to stay home.” Sam Harris

We have had a fairly long run of security and comfort in regards to potential civilizational crises in the West. For almost three generations we have not been conscripted into total war, suffered a natural disaster on a global scale, been subjected to widespread environmental collapse, or had to face zombies or hostile aliens (yet...mostly joking on the last two). This is the first time that we are being called upon to face a threat that affects everyone regardless of immutable characteristics, class, religion, or political leaning. It was quite remarkable to hear our Premier (Doug Ford) state that during this trying time that there is no “blue party, red party, orange party, or green party. We are all on Team Ontario and Team Canada.”


And that is, of course, the exact right answer. People in the West, despite being overly confident with our civilizational security, and slow to react to this crisis, will try their best to make this work. What will prove daunting in the coming months is the general willingness to stay vigilant against the virus. Humans are generally not long-term thinkers and the prospect of warmer weather combined with people desperate to “get out” will present a host of problems come this summer. Although the next few months may well convince the doubters about the severity of this event. 


I do need to repeat that most importantly this is a trial run for something much more serious that is almost certain to hit us in the future. Imagine a virus that is as fatal as Ebola, but as communicable as the common cold. Should it take that level of severity for all levels of society to act immediately and decisively? We can practice now and reap the benefits of multi-layered planning later or treat this as a nuisance, an exaggerated threat, or worse still, and most stupidly of all, an outright hoax, and face probable extinction the next time around. 


When it comes down to it, what ends up happening depends on our actions as responsible individuals. This is a serious situation and the solutions are relatively simple: wash your hands, stay away from people, and stop touching your face. If we cannot grasp a few simple things like this then we will all be in trouble once a super-virus inevitably hits us.

© 2018 by Zink Publishing Inc.

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