Spanish flu of 1918 was unusual, amongst modern influenza outbreaks, because it killed young and otherwise healthy people. One of the possible reasons for this is an immune reaction called “cytokine storm” in which overreaction of a bodily system leads to a cascade of other failures and eventually to death. I’ll let my friends who are medical professionals correct me on the details, but that is the basic idea and sufficient explanation to set the stage for this blog post.
The Herd Reacts…
The psychology of human behavior, in particularly how it pertains to people in groups, is a fascinating study. We are social creatures and because of this our own response to anything can be easily influenced by the reaction of group. If one person or several, who are considered credible by the group, start to do something new, it won’t be very long before there are many others copying them. That is how fads and fashions are born, that is why religious people conform, we want to share in the credibility of the credible by doing what they are doing. We do this unconsciously, like the contagious yawn, and can help explain what happened last week.
All of the cancelations of the past few days may very well come down to the actions of one man. Rudy Gobert, days before becoming the first NBA athlete to positive for the Covid-19 virus, decided it would be funny to deliberately touch all the mics and recording devices in a news conference. This led to the NBA suspending their seasons and, like Mrs O’Leary’s cow kicking over the lantern starting the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, one man’s caviler attitude could very well have triggered the response of the NBA and the long list of other cancelations that soon followed.
It goes like this: The NBA canceled because 1) a few of their players tested positive, 2) they realized they were no longer in control of the situation, and 3) they could possibly be held liable if the death of someone’s grandpa could be traced back to one of their sporting events. So, in the name of public safety and all things good and right, they decided to approach this unknown risk by abruptly ending their season. This, in turn, very likely influenced other leagues to follow suit for fear of their own inaction, despite knowledge of risk, becoming a heyday for trial lawyers everywhere or simply a public relations disaster.
The more leagues and events that cancelled, the more others felt pressured to do the same. Sure, this was something rationally justified, the idea of “flattening the curve” or slowing the spread of a disease by “social distancing” soon became common parlance, and yet the spread of this idea to start canceling events seems also to be very much like the simultaneous run on toilet paper. Anxiety disorder is something I know a little about and, while I’ve never been tempted to hoard toilet paper, it certainly has gotten in the way of my better judgement.
So is the reaction to Covid-19 wholly rational or was it post hoc rationalization and basically a collective panic attack?
Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself…
I have a friend who was an Air Force medic during the First Gulf War. He told me an anecdote you’ll never hear reported in the news, a behavior that doesn’t make any rational sense and yet is something he encountered a few times in the lead up to combat in Iraq.
Apparently some of the young soldiers were so keyed up and anxious that they couldn’t take the pressure of the wait anymore, they would find a place where they had a little privacy (the porta-potties as I recall) and take their own life using the firearm issued to them.
It makes absolutely no sense. Why would someone, facing the danger of death, be so anxious that they would actually kill themselves?
In times of crisis people want to do something, anything, to lose that feeling of powerlessness. That is probably the reason why many people have recently started to stock up on things that really would not help them. That is why young soldiers, concerned about losing their life, took their own life rather than continue to wait in fear. Fear often leads to an irrational response. And our most educated and elite, given responsibility to make decisions, are not immune to this kind of irrational “do something” impulse either. Our leaders are capable of panic as much as any of us.
It reminds me of the story of Easy Company, told in the series “Band of Brothers,” where the Company Commander, 1st Lieutenant Norman S. Dike Jr. (or “Foxhole Norman”), was portrayed as being frozen by combat and unable to make a decision. He had obviously been talented enough to rise up through the ranks and become an officer, but apparently he lacked the calm and collectedness to be an effective leader outside of a controlled predictable environment. He had to be replaced by a more common and practical man, with the right instincts to get the job done:
During the assault on Foy, Dike had ordered a platoon to go on a flanking mission around the rear of the town. During their charge, he ordered them to take cover. His subordinates informed him they were going to get killed because they were sitting ducks. At the same time, Captain Richard Winters, former commander of Easy Company and the Battalion executive officer, tried radioing him to tell him the same thing. Having no idea how to control the situation, Dike froze. Carwood Lipton, at that time the company’s first sergeant, later put it: “He fell apart.” He was relieved during fighting at Foy by First Lieutenant Ronald Speirs under orders from Captain Winters, then moved on to become an aide to Maxwell Taylor, 101st Airborne Division.”Military Wiki, Norman Dike
Could it be those whom have power in our institutions are men (and women) of similar caliber to Dike? Smart, capable of working their way up through the established system, and yet lacking the courage necessary to lead society through uncharted waters? Some of them freeze in fear, others overreact in their anxieties, while others (seeing the bigger picture) are more more able to make good decisions and navigate the stressful circumstances of the present moment. Running the NBA or being at the top of a government agency does not mean that a person is qualified to manage a crisis and in some cases those in those positions are probably going to make matters worse rather than better.
Self-sabatoge, Fear-based Overreaction and Titanic Failures…
It is really hard to know, actually, in a politically polarized time, when many are willing to cut off their nose to spite their face, what is a real crisis and what is merely an opportunity to try to undermine a political opponent. In fact, there are some in this country who seem quite willing to destroy the economy in a desperate bid to get their power back and a few who even seemed to cheer the plunge in the markets. When some see personal benefit in feeding hysteria and panic, it is hard to know who too trust when clearly not everyone is on the same team anymore.
But that said, I would tend to see the fear as being real and the reaction a sincere effort to prevent the worst case scenario from happening. It was easy, as Covid-19, ravaged China, to deny the severity of the situation. For one, the Chinese government is not the most trustworthy source of information (add to the that they had every reason to minimize the outbreak as not to scare away investment dollars) and, two, it is very easy to dimiss China as a them rather one of us. The real wakeup call was Italy, a country clearly on par with our own in terms of medicine, and how quickly a few isolated cases suddenly exploded. And, unlike China, where the government kept a tight lid on information, the truth was allowed to escape.
What has happened since I see as being similar to when a driver dozes off, wakes up while crossing the rumble strips, and reactively jerks the wheel. Their immediate reaction may spare them a trip into the trees, but it could also be an over-reaction that takes them head-on into an incoming tractor trailer. It could be too little too late. There are those right now who call the idea of “flattening the curve” a “deadly delusion” an that only complete containment strategy will make a difference. But then I begin to wonder has the opportunity to save those most vulnerable been missed a month or so ago when we failed to close our borders when it was clear that China was dealing with something unprecedented in our own times?
They say had the HMS Titanic ran straight into the iceberg, rather than barely grazed it, some would’ve died from the violent collision and yet the ship would likely haved stayed afloat. It is also strong possibility that they could have avoided a collision with the iceberg altogether if they had only used the rudder rather than try to reverse the engines. The Titanic, unlike many ships of the period, had two outer propellers run off piston engines and one in the center that was powered by a turbine. The outer propellers could be reversed quickly, the inner could not, and the result of their attempt to reverse being turbulence over the rudder which made the magnificent ship unresponsive.
Sometimes I wonder if it is too late to spare the lives that will be lost if we slam headlong into Covid-19 and let be what will be. Yes, people will die. But people will die regardless and crippling the economy may only add to the death count. Don’t get me wrong, I believe cancelling unnecessary activities and avoiding large group gatherings is a precaution worth taking, as is practicing good hygiene, washing hands, wearing masks and self-quarantine. However, I would also argue that wrecking the economy will only make matters far worse and must also be avoided at all necessary costs.
In my own mind there is a vast space between paralyzing fear or irrational over-reaction and blinding arrogance. We can and should be getting prepared, but with deliberate calm. We are at war, the strength of our enemy is not fully known, we must not recklessly expose our vulnerable flanks, we dare never freeze in fear. It would be wise to buy some time, to allow better countermeasures to be deployed and that does mean social distancing, less travel, more cleanliness, and really what should be common sense.
What Is Coming?
Despite our best effort, war is coming. We can expect that in the coming weeks that case numbers will jump dramatically and, not only that, but ICU beds will begin to fill at an alarming rate. We could see abandoned shopping centers and malls converted into makeshift hospitals. We will probably see some “wartime medicine” or triage, where those most likely to survive are given access to treatment over those who have only a slim chance are basically left to die, so snap out of your dismissive stupor and conspiratorial denial now or you will not be prepared for the battle of the coming days.
That is the truth.
We are emotional beings, not wholly rational.
We make poor decisions, both collectively and individually, that can turn a dire circumstance into an absolute disaster.
If you are seeing this only in terms of politics, who gets blamed or who benefits, you are the problem more than the virus. If you have filled your cart with toilet paper because suddenly you feel vulnerable and don’t know what to do, stop thinking only about yourself and stop feeding into the anxieties of others. It is time to buckle down, put aside partisan differences, selfish ambitions, and act together as one nation again.
In the end, remember, like the case of many who caught Spanish flu and died because of their strong (yet unhelpful) response, overreaction can be more deadly than the actual threat. We cannot bring the economy to a grinding halt out of fear, instead we must thread the needle with a prudent and properly measured reaction. There is no point in stopping the virus by killing the patient. We should pray that our leaders are given extraordinarily wisdom and calm for this unprecedented event.