What an extraordinary time we’re experiencing as a result of the Corona Virus pandemic. In all my research, I haven’t been able to identify an event or period that affected the entire world simultaneously, both economically and socially. While the potential mortality statistics are worthy of consideration, the most significant effect of this pandemic on interpersonal behaviour will be what’s remembered in the future. That is, we will not forget how we felt and behaved, how we saw others behave, and what that meant for civil cohesion.
Disasters and calamities have always been the benchmark for evaluating character. We’re radically exposed to our baser instincts when our routine, comfort, certainty or survival is threatened.
A global pandemic of this magnitude and scope is a societal equivalent to a personal encounter with a terminal disease. Both induce the same reactions in the psychology of a person by plunging them through the five stages of grief:
While Elizabeth Kubler Ross identified these stages as universal reactions to a terminal illness (I can attest to its validity after I was diagnosed with ALS), the same progression is playing out in the current global pandemic among the world’s population.
At this stage, no one believes, acknowledges or considers the event to be a serious threat. The event is happening to strangers somewhere else. Even if it comes close to our vicinity, we’ll still believe we’re immune because bad things happen to other people. We’re entranced by our habitual routine. A routine serves us as a psychological shield against the chaos clawing at the walls of our periphery.
“Everything’s okay as long as I ignore it. This will pass. It’s not my business or concern.”.
At the second stage, the threat is now affecting our lives by disrupting our routine and lifestyle. The anger is an emotion commonly experienced when we discover we’re not special nor immune from life’s problems. Our behaviour, beliefs, achievements and independence don’t save us from others’ actions. We may be ordered to change our behaviour via legal means and that sparks our insistence to prove we’re independent of society’s problems. We feel entitled to be immune from community responsibility, yet, berate and despise the “system” and the “other” for not doing enough to stop the disruption to our routine.
“Why should I have to suffer other people’s problems? It’s not fair!”
At the third stage, we start changing our behaviour in the hope for safety. We start to rationalise that if we’re “good” the crisis will leave us unscathed. We may start to do what’s mandated, required or expected to stave off the worsening of our position.
“If I follow the rules, and everyone does the same then I’ll be okay.”
Despite our best efforts or measures, the situation keeps worsening. The crises either affects us directly by infection of ourselves or family, or indirectly by societal restrictions and lockdowns. We’re now fully enveloped in the crisis’ effects and there’s nothing we can do about it. We realise we’re not special nor immune. We’ve probably lost our job, money, freedom, trajectory or health. It can only get worse and we’re on a ride we didn’t pay for.
“Why is this happening to me? There’s no hope, why bother to try if no one else will?”
In this final stage, enough time has passed to habituate us to the new landscape. The new societal reality is no longer a shock. Whether we have the disease or remain forever changed from its communal effects, we accept the new reality because it’s the new normal. Our expectations for a return to the prior life no longer appears possible nor desirable. The simplicity and habits experienced from the crisis’ requirements for survival have birthed a quieter state of mind. Prudence and community, overtake caprice and individuality as life goals. Acceptance is borne of habit and necessity.
“This is how it’s going to be from now on. So, what can I do to move forward?”
Race to the Bottom
As I’m sure, you’ve watched with disgust on YouTube and the news, the absolute deterioration of civility and spiteful disregard for hygiene and protective measures by a minority. We’ve seen the stages of grief play out in dramatic ways:
- the infamous fistfights and knife-wielding threats over toilet paper,
- the purposeful disregard for temporary social distancing and routine hygiene
- the abominable act of spitefully coughing and spitting at people, service, law enforcement and health professionals with the verbal threat of Covid-19 contamination,
- the emptying of rural stores’ limited supplies by expeditions with the sole intent of reselling at prohibitive prices or posting overseas,
- the inundation of the 000 emergency line with inane concerns like seeing a bat or Asian outside their house (seriously).
In a decade punctuated by narcissism and caprice, a sympathetic observer may understand the tantrums and self-serving disregard for civil decency by a generational section not conditioned to think of another.
Yet, this explanation feels cheap. An explanation like this feels like punching down to the lowest common denominator. I believe we’re all responsible for instability and immaturity in our society. We encourage decadence to happen by following, adulating, copying, commenting, glorifying, excusing, promoting and tolerating those who vie for attention.
But perhaps all we’re witnessing is a false “Lord of the Flies” narrative, perpetuated by the media to create alarm and continue the hysteria. Then when people panic and react to what’s being selectively shown by the network, they can have further “stories” of chaos and opinion pieces to talk about. They’re literally creating the news in a crisis when they choose what angle to report from.
Do you believe the toilet paper panic in Australia would’ve started if the media hadn’t focused on the toilet paper run in Asia? Then when they show the empty Australian shelves, that understandably induces panic in more people who then rush the shops to buy for themselves and family.
What if the media chose to show the majority of people behaving responsibly in a time of crisis? Wouldn’t that be a greater motivator and example for our population?
Philosophers, psychologists and defence experts have always warned that any society lives on a razor’s edge of civility that we take for granted in the slumber of self-absorption. Every service and product that we require just exists—for us to use. We live as if society exists for our sole benefit. We rarely examine, care for, or acknowledge the countless machinations at play to keep our daily lives relatively stress free.
- Want food? Go to the supermarket or order online.
- Want water? Turn on a tap.
- Want electricity? Flick a switch.
- Are you feeling sick? There’s a doctor a phone call away.
- Don’t want to work? Book an appointment at the welfare office.
- Someone threatening your safety? Call the police to handle it.
- Does a potentially decimating infection threaten your very existence? Countless personnel and professionals are on the front line to ensure your life will continue.
This list is potentially endless.
Anything you want is available for the taking without a second thought of the processes required for it to exist. We live in a fortunate time, indeed. But what happens if those services and products suddenly stop being available?
An unexpected benefit of a societal calamity is a sudden realisation in how much we take for granted. We assume our comfort will continue unimpeded until something like a pandemic reminds us of human interdependence. Not only do we rely on essential and non-essential products, but most importantly, we rely on people to provide services and expertise to enjoy the benefits that products provide.
At first glance of human reactions in a crisis, we may tend to focus on the idiotic and self-centred nature of strangers. However, it just seems worse because those atrocious cases are what makes for dramatic impact in the struggle for your attention; for online clicks and ratings.
We only see the worst news because that’s what will grab our attention and simultaneously scare us into doing the right thing. According to the media, millions of people can’t give up temporary comfort for the greater good.
But most are doing just that.
Millions are responsibly buying only what they need, and self-isolating for the benefit of others.
Why don’t we notice them? Simple, they’re not outside, in our field of vision, nor in the news.
They’re not in focus due to their absence of presence.
You’ll notice if you go outside, there are many more people missing from public places than there are in them.
Most of those that are out are also providing essential services to the public or their families. That car next to you may contain someone on the way to, or from their shift at a supermarket, delivery, utility or emergency service.
That person at the shop may be taking a personal risk of infection to gather essential supplies or services for the infirm, elderly or a family. It may be a worried mother, sister, carer or friend doing their utmost to help someone who can’t help themselves, despite the risks and stigma of being outside.
Perhaps they’re alone, scared and suffering in silence, doing the best they can without the social support afforded others.
The rest, like you, are continuing with their lives. Apprehensive, yet, aware of our current predicament, we have to continue to do what must be done. We still need to work, to socialise, to play, to care for, to provide and survive—but in a mindful, respectful and hygienic manner.
The world is not ending. It’s on pause temporarily.
You may gain consistent peace of mind if you look past the fabricated noise. Perceive how things are rather than what you witness in the myopic, biased and dramatically edited media.
I observe that many more people are acting nobly and conservatively compared to those that don’t. Overwhelmingly, I’ve witnessed care and concern by noticing prudence, over decadence. Yes, there is also a small spectrum ranging from ignorance and incompetence to psychopathy and degeneracy.
But it’s vital to broaden your focus, hear the silence outside, assume benevolence amid anguish.
Perhaps changing the focus of our attention from the noise to the silence may rekindle our faith in individuals, community and humanity.
It’s important to remember that the virus doesn’t attack you for just being outside or in the same room with someone.
The point of isolation and distancing is to prevent the accelerated spread, and overwhelming the emergency services to more than they can handle.
However, you can wear an N95 mask to protect others or you against airborne particles projected from an infected cough.
If you wear gloves or wash your hands thoroughly after touching potentially infected public surfaces, then your risk of infection is greatly reduced via infected surfaces to your mucous membranes when you touch your face (or others’).
Remember, there are millions of emergency personnel on the front line surrounded by infections and using these precautions to stay safe.
Don’t become irrational in the pursuit of safety.
Stay safe. Stay sane. Remember to look up.
Also published on Medium.