The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly brought with it an assortment of unprecedented challenges and stresses. Even though there are a rare few who remember the events of the last global pandemic we are a much different world structurally, technologically, and societally this time around. However, while the challenges may be unprecedented our struggles to handle them are not. The discord, confusion, belligerent resistance, denialism, and divisive polarization are not new. They have been with us for quite some time we’ve just never seen them so powerfully intensified system-wide before.
Times of crisis are always difficult, stressful, frightening, often painful, and we all have limits to our capacity for coping with them. Even those who are fully trained and well-practiced in managing and navigating crises have limits to their stamina and endurance. If we are not able to gain at least periodic reprieve from intense stress it begins to deteriorate not just our mental and emotional state but our basic biological functioning as well.
Our bodies are hardwired with an entire neurochemical system designed to help protect us from imminent danger. When a threat is perceived the hypothalamus in the brain cues our adrenal system to release hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline elevates heart rate, increases blood pressure, and boosts energy levels to provide us with a sudden burst of energy and strength in order to tackle or evade the threat. Cortisol curbs nonessential functions and processes such as immune responses, reproductive systems, growth processes, and digestive systems to prevent them from interfering in our fight or flight capabilities as well as diverting such energies over to reinforce the boost offered by the adrenaline.
All of this is meant as a short term response and thus is wired to be self-cancelling. Once the threat has passed hormone levels lower and all processes, systems, and functions return to normal. Like the nitrous booster in a car once the added surge has passed the engine functions return to normal, they need to. The engine might be able to handle a temporary power surge but cannot handle the persistent pressure, strain, and erosion of sustained long-term extreme acceleration.
Our bodies are the same. Our fight or flight response is meant to be a temporary measure to help protect us from a moment of danger. If the perceived threat does not subside, if the hypothalamic alarms continue to sound trapping our system in a heightened state of enhancement and suppression those enhanced and suppressed systems begin to break down as do all others connected to them. Overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones put us at a greater and ever increasing risk of developing serious and long term health problems such as anxiety, depression, heart disease, and memory or concentration impairments.
Since the beginning of the year the entire planet has been locked into a state of uncertainty and omnipresent danger. Our stress responses have been left on and running, in some areas at a full alert and in some fortunate others more a moderate hum. Whether we are in relatively untouched areas taking precautions to keep it that way or caught in the epicenter of full-fledged outbreak our constant awareness of potential or even imminent viral risk keeps the alarm bells ringing.
The personal mental and emotional fatigue we are feeling as well societal fraying and increased interpersonal tension is natural and to be expected. Fear can drive people to behave erratically and destructively, persistent unrelenting fear all the more so. Much of the anger and strife we are seeing, feeling, and experiencing is a result of the psychological and neurological impact of such an egregiously protracted state of perceived threat.
Much of that anger and anxiety is manifesting in aggressive denialism, religious and political polarization, and villainizing. The natural and understandable stress responses may be providing the fuel but they did not create these outlets of expression and engagement.
For decades we have been globally mired in the societal sand traps of religious and political tribalism, racial disenfranchisement, staggering economic inequality, and normalized discrimination. Long before COVID arrived on the scene we were already zealously engaging in ‘us versus them’ villainizing and elevating the supposed inherent value of personal opinion to the point of all but obliterating the authority of factual expertise.
Cultural exaltation of individual autonomy combined with the overprotective ego-codling born of the self-esteem movement of the 70’s and 80’s has given rise to a pervasive societal notion that all opinions regardless of background or context should be given equal deference on any subject at any time.
Whether initially well intentioned or not the now cultish view of individuality and ultimately self-destructive attempts to somehow make failure impossible have warped our interactions with information and each other to the extent disagreement has become painted as an act of hatred and being factually corrected as a personal attack.
People who feel convinced they cannot ever possibly fail or be wrong, and that anyone attempting to say otherwise is attacking them and should be discounted as an enemy, feel no need or desire to learn or grow beyond what they already feel and perceive. Rather than utilize critical thinking and resist the confirmation bias we all intrinsically have they lean into it only accepting and acknowledging information which agrees with their existing perspectives and opinions.
There may be nearly limitless amounts of information available through our digitally connected world but when our experience of that data is shaped and funneled by search-history style preference focused algorithms most often we are only presented with slices of that vast pie which match the slices we have already consumed.
‘Kids never tire of the things they love’ has become the dominant ideological and structural approach to all information and social media platforms. Our confirmation biases are getting supersized by wave after wave of ‘similar results’ and ‘others who bought that also bought this’.
Especially in Western culture this has provided a phenomenally fertile breeding ground for prejudices and inequality. Rather than being encouraged and supported to experience ideas, people, and cultures which are different than our own and thereby reducing and dispelling the reflexive fear of the unknown we are enabled and persuaded to cozy up in the familiar. Perpetuating ‘more of the same’ is all but openly insisted upon and suggesting otherwise is not simply discourage but depicted as a form of personal attack.
We have been grappling with an epidemic of ‘I already know I’m right and if you say otherwise that is an assault on my rights’, epitomized in the concept of ‘alternative facts’, for the better part of half a century before this legitimate and serious global threat appeared placing us in a situation where leaders need to lead and followers need to follow.
In the face of a global pandemic which has claimed more than one million lives in the past ten months this religious level pre-eminence of individualism has not only led to an up-swell in denialism and conspiracy theories but more simply and fundamentally to a zealous refusal of any kind of mandated behavior. Not even a debate over the accuracy of the data about the virus or the efficacy of masks as a method of protection and prevention but a frothing rejection of the idea of anyone, even someone elected to a position of leadership and governance, trying to tell them they have to wear one.
When we look to Eastern cultures wherein deference to authority is still a much more entrenched part social behavior and attitudes we don’t see this same belligerent ‘adolescence’. Taiwan stands a bit of a shining example. Culturally already far more comfortable with wearing face masks for the sake of mutual public protection compliance with safety protocols was essentially instant and universal. They never went into any kind of social or economic lockdown and were able to rein in their initial outbreak of the virus in just under a month’s time. With a population of just under twenty-nine million their daily cases numbers never rose above thirty and their curve continues to remain flat with one of the lowest national death tolls on the planet.
A key and crucial part of structural engineering is the core understanding and assumption that the structure must be able to support not only the weight of itself but also that of any additional or outside force which may interact with it. The same holds true at the societal level.
Cultures which are interconnected and ideologically congruent with efficient functioning of leadership can more easily coalesce to take unified action in the face of a common threat. Those which are more divisive and antagonistically individualized wind up less able to shoulder the pressure of a serious common threat with any sustainable stamina.
The US is arguably the most avidly individualized nation on the planet. However noble in intention it is an individualism which has led to a divisiveness stoked and provoked by a President who has used the tactic purely to generate personal gain his entire life. They have thus been struggling with the most fractured and ineffective attempts to contain and control the spread and impact of the virus of all industrialized nations.
It is important to note this cultural divisiveness and toxic individualism predated the pandemic because it can be all too easy to assume they will simply disappear once we reach the other side of this pandemic, whenever that will be and whatever it will look like. It can be all too easy to assume they were created by this crisis because the stresses of it have enflamed and exposed them so fiercely.
They may well grow more calm and quiet once this crisis has passed but they will still be with us, we will still have to confront them and struggle with them. In a very relevant parallel, as a certain resilient and charismatic young congresswoman pointed out with regards to the current President, even once his term in the Whitehouse has ended the broken situation which enabled him to get there in the first place will still exist.
Surviving the crisis is one part. Doing everything possible to minimize and prevent the harm and damage caused by the crisis is another. Addressing and rectifying the problems and conditions which either enabled or exacerbated the crisis will be yet another one and sadly our crisis generated fatigue and exasperation will not make them magically disappear.