As I write this in late March, we are in the midst of a global crisis none of us has experienced. Other past crises, such as the Great Depression, world wars, natural disasters are in some ways analogous, but even they, by comparison, seem orders of magnitude different — somehow more comprehensible and thus not as terrifying.
The COVID-19 pandemic, with all of its unknowns and uncertainties, is posing challenges we are struggling to understand, let alone address. By the time you read this a few weeks from now, things may be better, but the odds are they will be worse.
What to do? What can the average citizen do?
Beyond all the things we’ve been urged to do to slow or stop the spread of the virus and thereby help keep our health care system from being overwhelmed, we need also to take steps to slow or stop the spread of fear and panic, and thereby keep the fabric of our society from being ripped apart.
Fear is one of the strongest emotions we humans have. It is elemental; it is innate. It is a key part of our basic survival instinct and, depending on how we handle it, can be the determining factor in whether we live or die.
In the midst of the Great Depression, at his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” That’s the short, most well-known, version of the statement. Roosevelt elaborated, however, explaining that he was warning against the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
As in the Great Depression, it’s not just fear itself we’re afraid of; it’s the reality we find ourselves living in. Today we have a name for it: the COVID-19 pandemic.
But if we are to avoid being paralyzed in our efforts to deal with the enormous, unprecedented challenges it poses, we have to focus first and foremost on keeping unjustified terror at bay; and the only way to do that is to bring our reasoning skills fully to bear on how we, as average citizens, should think and behave, how we should handle our fear.
What’s emerging are two basic attitudes. One employs reason and recognizes that only by pulling together can we overcome the challenges of our time. The other ignores reason and rejects the very idea of working together—“It’s all about me.”
At this point, fortunately, the predominant attitude is one of keeping our fear under control by thinking our way through the crisis and relying on the advice, guidance, and counsel of experts and leaders who are knowledgeable, forthright, honest, and empathetic.
The vast majority understand that, under these circumstances, it is all about us; we know that only by working together can we make the choices and take the steps needed to solve the numerous and enormously complex problems confronting us.
By far most of us are heeding the advice of our health care professionals and taking in stride the unprecedented restrictions and upheaval in our daily lives. The supreme irony of the moment is that by being forced apart physically, we’re actually coming closer together socially and using a variety of creative, inventive ways to connect, to help others in need, to do our part.
And, as we were reminded recently by Dr. Emily Landon, the chief infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Chicago Medicine, “ … these extreme restrictions may seem in the end a little anticlimactic because it’s really hard to feel like you’re saving the world when you’re watching Netflix on your couch but, if we do this right, nothing happens. Yes. A successful shelter in place means that you will feel like it was all for nothing. And you would be right. Because ‘nothing’ means that nothing happened to your family and that’s what we are going for here.”
In short, the vast majority of us around the world are handling the situation rationally, responsibly, and ethically. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have dampened our natural ego-centric and socio-centric tendencies to some degree so far. That optimistic assessment may be unwarranted but, at least for now, I’m sticking with it.
Some, however, have succumbed to the kind of unreasoning, unjustified terror Roosevelt warned against in 1938. They are the ones acting on an impulse of pure self-protection; panic buying, hoarding, making sure their arsenals are ready to fend off the collapse of civilization, the end of the world.
Handling the present situation this way is irrational, irresponsible, unethical. It is, at its core, cowardly retreat; it is shameful behavior.
When we feel a sense of imminent physical peril, we are equipped biologically to respond instantaneously,instinctually; this is the “fight or flight” response, which kicks in automatically because in those situations our fear is telling us we don’t have the time needed to think through all the potential implications and consequences of a decision. In other words, our action is dictated by our emotion — our unreasoning fear. Even when the peril is actually imminent, whether we run or stand our ground is no guarantee of survival.
In our current situation, however, we cannot afford to simply act on instinct. This is exactly the time when we need to think through all the potential implications and consequences of the choices we make, the things we do, the ways we behave. Now is when we must make rational, responsible, ethical decisions that reduce, rather than increase, the dangers we face.
The issues we have to address regarding fear about the pandemic are just like the ones we confront about the virus itself — how to reduce its transmissible aspect, how to slow or stop its spread, how to minimize its effects.
Unlike COVID-19, though, we have a treatment that can drastically reduce its transmissibility, slow its spread, and keep it from becoming the unreasoning, unjustified terror that can overwhelm not only our individual, but our collective psyche. That treatment is critical thinking, and it is readily available to everyone right now — if only we choose to take it.
Ken Stringer is a Sequim resident.