In response to several demands for an applied neuroscientific perspective on the current pandemic I have crafted the attached, in the hope that it might give some basis for fear-free thinking.
Viruses come in three forms, of which only two are commonly recognised. The first is physical - COVID-19 and its immediate SARS predecessors. The second is digital, and can be seriously invasive, disruptive and damaging. The third is emotional, and highly contagious. It is the third that is being seriously under-recognised in governmental responses to the current pandemic.
Leaving aside conspiracy theories as to the possibility that what started in Wuhan was not entirely an accident, what all governments are having to grapple with is the unknown, with virologists and epidemiologists giving them the worst-case scenarios they can imagine. That’s where fear starts.
At the height of the American Depression, Theodore Roosevelt’s first Inauguration address as President in 1933 contained words that need amplifying now:
…. let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.
In his 8 February 2020 first address to the people of Singapore on the developing conovirus situation, PM Lee had a not dissimilar thought. After describing the level of government preparedness to meet the developing situation, he said:
…(but)… the real test is to our social cohesion and psychological resilience. Fear and anxiety are natural human reactions. We all want to protect ourselves and our families from what is still a new and unknown disease. But fear can do more harm than the virus itself. It can make us panic, or do things which make matters worse. Like circulating rumours online, hoarding facemasks or food, or blaming particular groups for the outbreak. Instead, we should take courage, and see through this stressful time together…....Take sensible precautions. Help one another. Stay calm and carry on with our lives.
Those last three short sentences seem to me an exemplary statement of the best way of managing the current pandemic. What they do is maximise the possibility that a leader can mobilise the best in human beings to their own and everyone else’s social advantage. In achieving that, there are three underlying processes which, when mobilised, are great encouragers of health and wellbeing.
The first is the self-regulating capacity of any grown-up to ensure that s/he feels responsible for him- or her-self. That will support the immune system in functioning at is best as well as leave people to make the best adaptations to their own particular circumstances that they can. Switching off all individuals’ self-regulating/adaptive capacities as is happening under lockdown regimes is, in my view, a recipe for mindlessly producing paradoxical effects. Immune systems get compromised and more people get ill.
The second is that maintaining relationships and being able to act judiciously in whatever circumstances arise, rather than succumbing to isolation and severely limiting relationships, is a characteristic of survival behaviour in complex social systems. The whole-scale, forced closing-down of places of work and of entertainment and relaxation creates an infinity of unfamiliarity in most people’s lives, whilst the absence of choice and forced compliance infantilises adults. So resilience gets squashed in the system at a time that it is most needed.
The third is that a government that avowedly trusts its people is likely to be trusted in return. Creating life-limiting regulations in conditions of uncertainty, when the outcome can only be serious economic hardship for hundreds of thousands of individuals and businesses with no benefit discernible to the majority of people, is not the way to lead a country through and out of a crisis. The most likely outcome is that it will generate massive mis-trust.
It is arguable that governments are getting themselves into situations where they will not be able to admit to having been wrong and, as they cannot know when to release people from lockdown, for the trajectory of the infective capacity of the virus is not known, they cannot give any assurances as to the outcomes of the lockdown decisions they have taken. But people nevertheless experience the immediate damage to their lives and livelihoods.
It is curious, harking back to conspiracy theory, that just as China says the matter is under control and it starts sending medical teams to Europe, the UK’s Daily Mail reports that - One of China's top coronavirus experts has warned that the nation is facing a second outbreak due to the increasing number of infections detected among new arrivals from abroad. [23 March 2020].
Is it at all possible that China is conducting an international experiment on the disseminating of fear: and in its aftermath is securing its own advantages? If it were, and equally so even if it were not, Prime Minister Lee’s injunctions seem to me the most mature response of any world leader thus far:
Take sensible precautions. Help one another. Stay calm and carry on with our lives.
What does that mean for individual and corporate reaction to the developing situation?
What can individuals do specifically? We shall see remarkable examples of personal generosity from individuals who know that it is relationship upon which we as human beings fundamentally depend for our wellbeing. Here are two examples.
At Linkedin in Singapore Aarti Thapar, Talent Leader and in charge of Customer Success, offered free advice to anyone wanting to improve their linking in capacity as an antidote to these strange times. She was swamped immediately, but found ways of responding nevertheless. Like any good leader, she told people what the situation was and what she personally was going to do about it. In India, and following the successful February launch of her new book 52 Red Pills, CEO of Future Learning Eika Banerjee has devised fourteen day-by-day sequential Whatsapp send-outs to her extensive list of friends and colleagues, and for sharing, using the ancient wisdom of the East to raise individual immunity levels.
And finally, consider this. In the year ending June 2019 there had been 1,870 road deaths in the UK, with more than 25,000 serious injuries. For deaths alone that’s a monthly average of 155, or 465 in the first three months of this year. In the three-month period to 23 March there have been 289 deaths from Covid-19, a monthly average of 96. Where is the outcry to ban all motor vehicles from all roads in order to avoid unnecessary deaths? There is none.
We learn to be socially responsible as drivers and expect others to do the same. Alas there are some deaths. But that is part of the price of the way a modern society organises itself. The mature social response to a viral attack is not to let emotionally contagious fear overwhelm effective complex decision making – governmentally or anywhere else.Might there be a government of a large country that was brave enough to say: “Get on with your lives. Do the best you can. Follow the simple hygiene and virus-prevention rules of which we have told you. We will do our best to take care of those who fall ill. We are not going to ruin lives and economies by generating fear, even though we are hugely concerned by what is happening. If we pull together we shall reach the other side together, whenever that is. Do whatever you have to do to take care of yourselves, your loved ones, your neighbours and your businesses.
A blog by Prof Paul Brown
Become part of our online family. Connecting and empowering each other to succeed. We want to give supervision wider exposure and a larger 'share of voice' in the coaching community. Come and join us!