Yesterday the warning light shifted from yellow to red. The World Health Organization declared that the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak had become an official “pandemic.” The president addressed the nation from the Oval Office, a one-month travel ban to Europe was announced, the expectation that things will get worse was affirmed, the NBA suspended its season, college March Madness tournament will proceed without fans in the stands, colleges and universities are shifting to online instruction, and celebrity Tom and Rita Hanks contracted the disease while filming in Australia. COVID-19 is now a cultural phenomenon. The disease now dominates the news, is overwhelming the political campaign, stressing the health care delivery system, and causing turmoil in the stock exchange. If it wasn’t before, it’s real now for most Americans.
The full scope of this global health crisis cannot be fully known. But this much is certain, it is having a significant impact on our shared social psychology and some of these impacts are fully positive. In 1990, Philip Strong building on the lessons from the 1980s AIDS crisis, wrote a paper “Epidemic Psychology: A Model,” published in the journal of Sociology of Health & Illness. Dr. Strong worked at the Department of Public Health and Policy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Now is a good time to take stock of our collective social psychology. There are at least ten lessons one can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Social life is fragile. What we take-for-granted as civilized behavior is only a thin veneer over darker animal impulses. We must not take this fragility lightly. We must exercise constraint and calm because to do otherwise is to make matters significantly worse. Social life is fragile and we must exercise care in how we handle it.
2. Life is highly connected. There is a growing awareness that our lives are highly connected, networked in a web of social relationships often beyond our immediate awareness. Our connections to others can now directly impact our health. We tend to think of ourselves as atomized individuals, except when we are facing a highly contagious untamed virus. Then we recognize the degree to which our lives are interconnected. “Social distancing” and “mandatory quarantining” remind us how interdependent our lives are, linked in a networked web of overlapping relationships.
3. Politics is limited. There are significant limits to what governments can do even when draconian authoritarian measures are implemented. We may scapegoat governmental agencies or the presidency. One thing that we learn in the face of a global pandemic is how little power governments have over novel viruses. Even the best responses will not stop its spread or lethality.
4. We are not in control. To a certain extent our anger over governmental action or inaction, reflects our belief in the myth of control and our unfounded confidence in an instant technological solution to every problem. Reality has the last word on this false assumption and significantly deflates our modernist illusion of techno-rational control. A vaccine for COVID-19 will not be available until sometime next year. This is a pandemic that is shattering our illusions of control.
5. Don’t give into fear. When we loose control, we inevitably face the temptation to give into fear. In most cases, this fear only leads to more social decay and even more damage than the disease itself. It is not uncommon for fear to lead to social stigma, where diseased individuals are scapegoated in a highly discriminating manner. Sociologically fear is as deadly as the disease.
6. Don’t distrust social institutions. Another measure of this lack of control is the rise in social distrust particularly of public institutions. In most cinematic narratives of a pandemic, Outbreak (1995) and Contagion (2011), the organizing drama is about the duplicitous corruption of public institutions that are tasked to keep Americans safe. Such distrust doesn’t help, even if it makes for good film.
7. Don’t weaponize political rhetoric. This crisis is occurring in the midst of a highly partisan political campaign. This breakdown in social distrust is reflected in weaponized political rhetoric. This temptation—even when justified—doesn’t help our body politic.
8. Social media makes matters worse. This may be the first pandemic to occur in a world dominated by social media. Social media and the Internet generally increase the spread of fear and misinformation. Social media is an accelerant of fear, and must be treated with the same degree of caution as the virus itself. The Hippocratic oath of “Do no harm,” extends to the Internet.
9. Personal responsibility for the common good is necessary. Critical in this crisis is taking personal responsibility for our own actions. If we all take personal responsibility, we will in fact be showing love to our neighbor and serving the common good. This applies to personal hygiene and common sense social distancing.
10. Try to live an evidence-based life. What this means is to live your life in a manner that is aligned to reality. What this means is basing your actions on the basis of sound data and responsible authority. This is not the time to listen to rumors or conspiracy theories. We need to pay attention and not panic. COVID-19 is highly contagious, but less lethal, except to certain at-risk populations. We’d do well to listen to science educator and patron saint of religious nones Science Mike.
The COVID-19 is a wake-up call. But collectively these are all good lessons to take to heart. We will be a healthier society if we can learn these lessons. There is a silver lining to this pandemic.
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