Over my past twenty years as a dance teacher, a majority of it spent introducing people to partner dancing for the very first time, I have had plenty of experience with how strangely people can behave when they are scared. Some people hide from their fear barricading themselves behind mountains of excuses, some get overly giddy or frenetic, some overcompensate and behave like bullies, some become so stoic and terse as to seem almost statue-like. Once they have overcome the fear their behavior returns to normal and you finally get to meet the real ‘them’ but until then their actions and attitudes can make little to no sense whatsoever.
What we are facing now is on a scale our world has not seen in over a century. That the virus itself does not pose an instantly lethal threat to everyone it has contact with but the velocity of its spread and the percentage of people it does make critically ill is causing a crisis which is severely altering and disrupting the life of every single person on the planet. So how can there still be people who are not taking this crisis seriously, to the point of even being dismissive about it?
The short and simple answer is fear, strange and irrational behavior provoked by fear.
A 2016 study out of the UK has gotten a great deal of mention as of late for its findings that uncertainty is actually more damaging on the emotional health, and physical nervous system, than knowing for certain something bad is going to happen. It is most often referenced in discussions around the stresses and anxieties people are experiencing as a result of the massive disruptions to daily life.
It’s not so much the disruptions themselves causing the emotional damage but the uncertainty of how long they will continue, how much more severe they might become, and how close to a familiar normal will we be able to reclaim once we have come through this. Having a concrete answer to any of those concerns, even a bad one, would be easier for us to grapple with than simply not knowing. Just talk to anyone who has had to sit and wait for potentially serious medical test results and they will all tell you they would rather have heard bad news than none at all.
That uncertainty finding also offers some insight into the illogical and exasperating behavior we are seeing in people, from those in our neighborhoods to those in leadership roles of national government, because it points to a kind of primal and visceral fear which is capable of evoking it. This is not say there aren’t those who are acting out of blind self-interest to the point of being disconnected from reality but in our current situation even doubling down on that self-interest is a form of hiding from this visceral fear.
One of the most frustrating aspects of this ‘head deliberately buried in the sand’, or in other places depending your level of frustration with it, is that they clutch so desperately to one small factual truth they end up warping and distorting it into an excuse to bury the head deeper denying all other facts and thus the fears they bring with them.
Trying to get someone to confront their fear can be difficult and frustrating enough, facing our fears is one of the hardest things to do so we are often aggressively resistant to it. But in this kind of situation they insist on the truthfulness of the core factual truth they are clutching to then treat any acknowledgement of the factual truth as an endorsement of the excuse and an agreement with their behavior.
Here are some of the most common factual truths people are clutching to, warping into excuses, and using to justify the illogical and exasperating behavior we are seeing.
The Mortality Statistic
While it is still very early to pronounce a definitive mortality rate for COVID-19 as we are still fighting the first massive surges of the epidemic in countries all over the world the initial reports of COVID-19 having a mortality rate of around 2–3%, with the rate of serious illness at around 10–15%, were initially reassuring. While these numbers are not nothing, and certainly far higher than the 0.1% for the common flu, they were not numbers like 30–40% for SARS or 50–90% for types of hemorrhagic fevers.
If 80% or more of the people who get infected will have only minor symptoms to no symptoms at all then it feels like there is no cause for alarm. If I get it I will probably be just fine. And before we start leveling accusations of selfishness that ratio and thinking can make us feel the same will hold true for all the people we know. And if we have anyone in our lives who fits into the most vulnerable categories those of us in industrialized nations are used to feeling safe in the assumption we will be able to get them the help they need.
There are two major problems with the mortality rate as an excuse, however. The first is, whether or not the actual mortality rate for the virus is 2% or not, many of the deaths occurring are not only due to viral infection but are due to that 10–15% of people getting seriously ill and not being able to get the care they need to survive and recover due to hospitals and healthcare supports being overrun by sheer numbers. If there were enough ICU beds and ventilators for everyone who might need them it could be a different story but those are finite resources and when they are overwhelmed and consumed all the math changes.
The second problem is that while the mortality rate is a serious consideration it is not the most important statistic as far as this virus is concerned. The most critical number to focus on is the rate of transmission. It is the ease and speed with which COVID-19 spreads which is causing the global crisis around us, coupled with the 10–15% rate of infected people needing hospitalization. Both the mortality and hospitalization rates can seem small in the abstract and at a small scale don’t seem that dire. When thinking of a thousand people 2% , or even 15%, doesn’t seem like such a catastrophic number. But of ten thousand, a hundred thousand, a million, tens of millions?
Because each person who gets infected passes it on to an average of 3–4 other people that means, if uninterrupted, after it has bounced away from the first person ten times it can have bloomed to fifty-nine thousand cases, around six thousand of which could need hospital beds. Clinging to that initial 2% number can act as an excuse to feel certain things won’t get that bad, even most of those who go into the hospital will be fine in the long run. Clutching on to a blinding and distorting degree can keep things seeming minor and manageable despite the full tragic truth raging on all around them.
The Time Gap Between Infection And Serious Illness
The other statistical aspect of how the virus behaves which is acting as a source for a great deal of distortions and excuse clinging is the fact it takes on average more than a week or two to progress from infection to the level of serious illness. Those who get infected and are going to become seriously ill do not do so immediately and even the serious symptomology takes a few days to progress once it starts.
On one level this can be reassuring to a degree. It’s a far cry from the nightmarish imagery of things like hemorrhagic fevers taking people from infection to death within twenty four hours we see in movies. While it is certainly a good thing lethal deterioration is not merely a matter of hours the real tragic danger is that even those who will eventually become seriously ill can carry the disease for even several weeks before developing serious symptoms. This means several weeks of potentially passing the virus on to other before becoming symptomatic enough to make it clear they need to be quarantined, and by then how many bounces may the virus have made out away from them?
As the small Italian town of Vo illustrated if you are able test 100% of the population and quarantine all who test positive, regardless of symptoms, you can stop the virus in its tracks. As it is impossible to do so in massive urban centers we have been relying on testing those who have serious symptoms then contact tracing outward from them into the general population. The trouble is that puts us into the picture already a couple of weeks behind the truth of things. Things may be fine now but the next two to three weeks has already been written and what we do now will only show results in about three weeks or so.
That gap between infection and serious illness tints the lenses through which we try to assess our current situation.
Human Costs Are ‘Pending’, Economic Costs Are ‘Immediate’
One of the biggest and most immediate impacts of this crisis has been the economic one. While physical distancing and ‘stay at home’ practices are the most effective way to slow the rates of infection having an entire population suddenly staying home for weeks or months at a time has an instant and profound effect economic function.
At the personal level people unable to go to work are unable to earn wages, wages which they need to buy food and supplies as well as to pay any bills or debts they may have such as mortgages, loans, or credit cards. Our houses cost money just sitting there and if we are unable to earn a pay check that cost begins to eat away at whatever we have saved, if we have been fortunate enough to have amassed any savings.
At the employer and business level the same holds true. Their buildings and facilities cost money just sitting there and if there are no customers putting money into the business those bills and costs begin eating away at whatever the businesses have set aside. And if the business has not set aside very much, such as the stock buyback phenomenon in industries like the airline industry where they have only retained on average about 4% of their profits, then you see multi-billion dollar corporations very quickly on the verge of bankruptcy.
In both cases the pressures could be alleviated if those who own those debts and bills, be they banks or land-lords or utility companies, were simply to defer requiring payments until the crisis has passed but then they are now missing the revenue they depend on. This is where governments can come in, and most around the world are, by taking actions to bolster entities at all levels to help pause all activity for a period of time. This is obviously a band-aide option and not indefinitely sustainable but if handled properly can shepherd their national economies through the storm.
The wild card trouble is that investor panic tends to be as infectious as any disease. Once worries about economic stability take hold investors start pulling their money out of the market in an attempt to preserve as much wealth as possible. The more money is pulled out the more markets tumble, the more they tumble the more panic is inspired, the more panic the money gets pulled out…
The factual truth is we all need the global economic wheels to turn and continue turning. When they stall, as they are now, everyone is affected. Everything is connected from the big corporations to the front line workers and the recovery from this will take time. It will go better if things can start turning sooner rather than later but a rush to rescue the markets will horrendously backfire if rushing people back into the workplace winds up setting off further waves of infection requiring shutdowns to return.
And there is one note of potential optimism to bear in mind with regards to potential economic recovery. This is unlike any other economic drop we have experienced before. This is not a case of unstable debt ballooning out of control and then exploding or of governments not knowing how to handle a downturn caused by staggering unemployment and a sudden drop in investment spending. We know exactly what is happening here, there are ways to shore things up long enough for general work to recommence.
It is a matter of taking the economic pain now to ensure the health crisis causing it does not continue to surge on and on and on.
The Influence Of Conflicting Voices
The other thing driving the fear inspired clutching at distorting excuses is the constant and confusing input of conflicting and contradictory voices. When we are in a situation wherein we need to hear the truths we need to hear the last thing we need is people pandering to our impulses, or their own, and telling us what we would like to hear.
The concept of military ‘chain of command’ is the perfect example. High consequence and rapidly evolving situations require clarity of purpose and action in response, and large scale challenges require coordinated and consistent direction and communication. If you have different levels of the command structure issuing differing instructions and conflicting messages it is impossible to properly coordinate an effective response.
People can even be discussing the same facts but if their personal agendas are not in singular and agreeing harmony it can actually be worse than discussing different facts altogether.
As an example of this and the ‘what we need to hear’ versus ‘what we want to hear’ factors take a generic statement about the fact people are working on the problem and progress is being made. This is true of our current situation but it is critical to be honest about time-frames so as not to play havoc with people’s sense of morale or risk exacerbating their uncertainty.
With regards to our current situation the honest statement would something along the lines of ‘People are working on the problem, progress is being made, but it is going to take some time before we see large scale results.’ It reassures people solutions are coming but is honest about the fact those solutions will not be here tomorrow morning.
Someone, perhaps clinging to a distorting excuse out of fear, who might want to be falsely dismissive of the seriousness of our situation in order to reinforce their panic-driven need to believe everything is fine might say something more along the lines of ‘People are working on the problem, progress is being made, things will be back to normal before you know it.’ Also honest about the work and the progress but misleading about how quickly the scary troubles will go away.
At the personal level that can get shrugged aside as naively optimistic but at a governmental, national leadership, level that can result in deeply necessary actions not being taken because someone in authority made it seem as if they weren’t. In the current crisis we are facing that kind of misrepresentation could end up costing thousands and thousands of lives.
Fear is an incredibly powerful force. People in the grips of those chilling talons can act in extremely strange, unpredictable, illogical, and uncharacteristic ways. By latching onto a singular excuse they can then wrap themselves in apparent logic but then be confusingly resistant to being reasoned with.
This is because fear is not a logical phenomenon. It is based in the most simplistic and logical reflex, self-preservation. But it can become so powerful we end up fearing it more than the danger it is meant to warn us of.
If you encounter anyone who has latched onto some small and singular fact in order to convince themselves there is nothing to worry about try to remember that is their fear talking. Rather than jump to the assumption and accusation that they don’t care about anyone but themselves remember it is far more likely they are hiding from their fear, a fear we are all feeling and for good reason, than a deliberate disdain and disregard for their fellow citizens.
We cannot simply batter fear into the ground with logic. We first have to recognize it, acknowledge it, embrace it, and then drag it out into the light where we can look at it so we can get it out of the way before we can deal with the threat which caused it in the first place.
Never mind being tough or strong or brave, be human. Fear becomes our most toxic enemy when we try to deny it, when we treat it as a weakness or a defect. Let it pull a chair up to the table. This is a massive challenge we are all facing and it is only natural to feel fear. Rather than shame one another for it we need to forgive and empathize instead.
We will get through this but we will need to do so together. Anyone claiming not to be afraid is likely very much so. They are just hiding from it. An understandable impulse but one which lets it sneak up on you and gives fear all the power.