02 Apr 2020

What does the COVID-19 pandemic tell us about our society?

Why has COVID-19 become a pandemic? There are lots of other pathogens that have not become so prevalent. Why has this virus rapidly spread to people virtually everywhere on earth with little resistance? With all our resources, scientific understanding, and communication technologies how have we failed so emphatically?

We have 21st century scientific understanding of disease and disease processes. It’s not the 19th century. We don’t believe miasma (bad air) causes disease. We have prepared for and avoided global pandemics in the recent past, including SARS in 2003 – a different strain of the same virus that causes COVID-19. We have known about human coronaviruses since the 1960s[1] and research interest has increased since SARS in 2003. There is no shortage of scientific understanding. That was not the problem.

Every country knew about COVID-19 with sufficient time to prevent the pandemic. We knew how to prepare and how to minimise the impact. The fact that it wasn’t prevented says a lot about our society in the early 21st century.

A few observations below.

Medicine fixes everything

  • Most people have lived in a world where medicine can fix almost anything. Get sick, pop a pill. Get injured, have surgery. This has reduced the importance of being proactive since many health problems can be fixed once identified.

Therefore, many people don’t take the pandemic seriously, not comprehending that once infected there may be nothing to prevent long-term consequences and even death.

Profit all important

  • The pursuit of profit has resulted in cuts to both healthcare and pandemic preparedness and an overall disinvestment in public health systems.

Therefore, we lacked the preparedness to respond to the threat of the pandemic and the healthcare capacity to deal with it.

Poverty and inequality

  • Increasing inequality has left the majority in poverty and forced to work to survive with no safety net and limited social security. Now the wealthy demand workers to literally risk their lives so they can maintain their profit.

Therefore, many people have no choice but to work, thereby risking their own wellbeing and contributing to the spread of the virus.

Human life has a price – reverence for life

  • Historically many civilisations didn’t place much importance on human life, but by the end of the 20th C it seemed we had a great reverence for human life. However, now it appears human life has a price. By saying that it is more important to protect the economy than human life is the same as saying that human life is equal to some arbitrary dollar value, a measure of financial capital.

Therefore, action was not taken if it was deemed to be too expensive or to have too much impact on the economy.

Apathy and ignorance

  • Most people have limited interest in current events and are more interested in self-promotion, voyeurism, leisure and entertainment. Relatively few people seek out information and take an active interest in current events. For many people they feel disempowered to affect change and therefore take no ownership of the problem. Many people find these issues complex, confusing and depressing, so would prefer entertainment and the titillation of celebrity voyeurism.

Therefore, many people didn’t take early action to protect themselves and their communities, and didn’t demand action from our leaders

Head in the sand

  • Many people fail to understand the consequences of a global pandemic, or they find it easier (and more agreeable) to not consider it. Most people have no frame of reference for the scale of suffering and death, and even as the pandemic unfolds, many people are disconnected from the unfolding disaster. It’s not until you go to the hospital or contract the virus yourself do you see the situation can you more fully understand it.

Therefore, many people are inclined to ignore or disconnect from the events and therefore not take action to personally contribute to the mitigation or prevention.

Failure to understand risk

  • Most people equate risk with likelihood without taking into account the magnitude of the impact. Risk is a combination of both likelihood and magnitude; an event of catastrophic magnitude that is unlikely to occur represents an unacceptable risk. This problem is amplified by the general lack of understanding of statistics including understanding exponential growth.

Therefore, people did not take action and many still continue to not take action to reduce the risk of infection and transmission of the virus.

Out of sight, out of mind

  • It is difficult for most people to understand the scale and importance of the disaster when they cannot see it, due to the time delay of the infection and privacy concerns that prevent detailed reporting of the impact. The disaster is taking place primarily in hospitals, out of sight, where people are sick and dying and medical staff are overwhelmed by the volume of patients. The numbers tend to be dehumanising; to say 100,000 people will die is difficult to connect to real people.

Therefore, the people don’t understand the severity of the disaster and the importance and urgency of action.

The impossibility of things being different

  • Most people are stuck in the status quo, and cannot fathom the possibility for change, whether it is change inflicted by the unmitigated spread of the virus or change to prevent the pandemic. Many people thought it was impossible to stop going to work, to stop travel, to limit physical contact with others, to receive government support, etc. But this is exactly what has eventually happened in many countries, but too late to prevent the pandemic.

Therefore, the action that could have prevented or minimised the impact of the pandemic was delayed and in many places are still only half-measures.

Optimism bias: “It won’t happen to me”

  • Many people suffer from unrealistic optimism or an illusion of control. Research indicates that people underestimate their personal probability of encountering negative events.

Therefore, people have not taken sufficient action to protect themselves. This, coupled with the impacts that infection has on the transmission of the virus, has increased the rate of spread.

Lack of critical thinking

  • Many people lack the ability to think critically and assess the validity of information. Critical thinking requires background knowledge to identify inconsistencies or inaccuracies and a questioning mind that evaluates the validity of information we receive. Many people unquestioningly believe what they read or hear, or to unquestioningly dismiss information that contradicts their existing beliefs.

Therefore, false and inaccurate information can delay or prevent people taking measures to prevent the pandemic.

Narcissism and individualism

  • Much has been written about the rise of narcissism and individualism in modern societies. Our society has increasingly valued competition over cooperation and the individual over community that has resulted in increasing self-interest, entitlement, greed, and sociopathy.

Therefore, many people have placed their own personal interests over those of the community, contributing to the spread of the virus.

Distrust of science

  • Many people, often with little education, have come to treat science as opinion, coming up with alternative explanations without scientific evidence. Often this serves as convenient explanations that support their existing values and beliefs. It has led to suspicion of experts and the rise of the ‘novice expert’ – the person who believes their opinions, with limited education and experience, are more valid than professionals. For many people scientific understanding is beyond their reach; it is too complex, specific, and detailed.

Therefore, expert advice was questioned or ignored, resulting in delays or failures to prevent the spread of the virus. In some countries this happened at the highest levels and continues in some areas of the community.

Propaganda, misinformation and dishonesty

  • In many countries, dishonesty and misinformation has been normalised and the role of propaganda in politics has been redefined from an ideological bias to outright lies, corruption, and nepotism. An example is the 16,241 false or misleading claims President Trump has made during his first three years in office, according to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker. Many leaders have increasingly used emotive language including name calling to discount competing views, such as ‘scam’, ‘fake’, and ‘sham’ without explanation or justification.

Therefore, there is great uncertainty about what is and is not correct information and creates distrust that is likely to have contributed to the lack of action to prevent the pandemic in many countries.

Accountability

  • In some countries the rise of misinformation has also reduced accountability, with reduced transparency and institutional failure to hold leaders accountable for constitutional or legal breaches. This is particularly evident in the U.S. but is also a trend in several other countries.

Therefore, leaders can avoid taking responsibility for what has been obvious failings to act quickly and decisively to stop or slow the pandemic.

Societal divides

  • In many countries there have been significant increases is ‘pockets’ of shared understandings that tend to diverge from others, creating significant divides in beliefs and values. The decentralised media, and particularly social media, has created echo chambers that reinforce confirmation bias that tends to deepen the divides.

Therefore, the lack of shared understandings can create out-group attitudes that dismiss important information and perpetuates misinformation. In many cases, this has impaired action to mitigate the spread of the pandemic.

Blame and deflection

  • In many countries, governments have increasingly taken personal responsibility away from its citizens by overregulating everyday behaviour and providing avenues for compensation. For example, “if I trip in a hole then someone should have put up a sign warning me so it’s not my fault”. This seems now to have been normalised to the highest levels in some countries allowing leaders to pass blame on to others without accountability.

Therefore, people and leaders have failed to take responsibility for action since it’s always someone else’s problem or responsibility.

Stitch in time

  • People seem to undervalue the importance of preventing a pandemic; that a relatively small amount of economic impact, such as early screening and travel limitations, can prevent a much bigger economic impact. Once an epidemic becomes a pandemic, massive economic impact is unavoidable. Even if the government doesn’t mandate a lockdown, most people will make this choice themselves to limit their exposure. The impact on the economy is massive either way. The choice is not human life OR economy, it is either the economic impact of mitigation or loss of life AND economic impact.

Therefore, many countries did not move with strong and decisive early action to prevent the spread of the virus.

Ego and arrogance

  • People in many countries, particularly developed countries, have a blind faith in their authority and superiority so think they won’t be affected by the pandemic. They have the arrogance to think “that can’t happen here”.

Therefore, many people have not taken the pandemic seriously and have not taken the action required to prevent it.

Mobility

  • More people and goods move around the world than ever before. International tourist arrivals have increased by more than 50% in the last 10 years to 1.5B in 2019. Also, domestic tourism has also increased to over 2.3B person trips in U.S. in 2019.

Therefore, the virus was rapidly spread by more people, living in higher density, and moving around much more than ever before. With an average of over 4 million international arrivals per day there is great potential to quickly spread pathogens around the world.

  1. Kahn, J.S. and McIntosh, K., 2005. History and recent advances in coronavirus discovery. The Pediatric infectious disease journal, 24(11), pp.S223-S227. ^

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Comment List

  • Shaun Cavanagh April 4, 2020

    Hi Tristan,

    There is a meme that travels cyberspace of two students in a classroom. The one in the background calls out to his classmate in the foreground: “What is the difference between ignorance and apathy?”

    The foreground student responds: “I don’t know and I don’t care.” The meme often appears when there’s a lot of discussion about contemporary social issues. COVID-19 and effective responses to it is no exception.

    Under the heading ‘Apathy and ignorance,’ above, you have placed leisure in with a range of mindsets and behaviours that prevent effective approaches to dealing with COVID-19. It seems as if the definition you’ve given to leisure in this article is a commodified version of it that seeks to use leisure for commercial ends.

    It is this mindset that leads most people when asked how they define leisure is to define it as ‘free-time’ and position it relative to work. My suggestion is to look at the work of leisure scholars, who see that its true meaning and value transcends commercialisation, and if we really do this the outcome is to recognise that leisure is the antithesis of ignorance and apathy (eg., based on Greek philosophical thought, it refers to civic participation and not dissipation into the other areas you mention).

    Some of the scholars worth looking at include Josef Pieper, Sebastian de Grazia, John Neulinger, and Andrew Taggart (see his TED talk). This link provides a good summary:

    https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/08/10/leisure-the-basis-of-culture-josef-pieper/

    I just wanted to respond because leisure as a concept carries immense value to society, and my intention is just to advocate on its behalf. People are relying on it to deal effectively with being in lockdown without even realising it (on the grounds it has a contemplative aspect).

    Tihei Mauri Ora!

    Reply
  • P.graham April 4, 2020

    Our social purposes, processes and consciences are constantly threatened by the Trumps, the Kenny’s and the Scheers who advocate so strongly for the private shareholders of industry and capital, instead of for the common good of the common people.
    The only signs they recognize are the dollar and the bottom profit line.
    Pierce Graham

    Reply
  • ghousia saeed April 2, 2020

    Distrust of science:

    In many areas of world, distrust may not be of science but of countries which are considered to be the champions of science and scientific explanation.

    Reply
    • Tristan Claridge April 3, 2020

      I’m sure that is true, especially where it is politicized.

      Reply

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