Why our immediate reaction to fear is unsustainable

Image credit: the darkest blog

Loathe though I am to contribute to the seemingly endless deluge of “what coronavirus means for the future of home macramé” and similar articles, I reluctantly feel that it may be worth while to add one forward-looking thought experiment to the vast field of electronic detritus simply because we’ve entered a paradigm from which there is currently no obvious exit.

It’s all very well for panicking politicians to pander to hysterical voters by imposing universal lock-downs and telling us all to “shelter in place” in order to “smooth the curve” of projected hospital admissions and thereby incur economic damage that is literally beyond the imagination of most people to grasp. But… where’s the exit strategy?

Zero new cases? Or merely a decline in the average number of new cases? Zero new deaths, even as low-level infection rumbles inexorably on?

The fact is, no one has a clue, least of all flapping and flailing politicians desperate not to lose popularity during a time of crisis. As is always the case, expert advice is filtered through the politician’s desperate need for adequate polling numbers and any advice deemed unpopular will be rejected no matter how helpful or sensible it may be.

Today, after being whipped into a frenzy of terror by sensationalist mass media reportage, most citizens are screaming at their political “leaders” to impose ever-more-draconian restrictions in the belief that these are essential to “save” lives. Everyone is fixated on what’s been dressed up as the greatest existential crisis the world has faced since World War II (hint: it’s not).

And so we have global shut-down, closed borders, and institutionalized hysteria.

The initial rush of panic buying was depressingly predictable, as homo sapiens is a group species and as such we do what those around us are doing. It only takes one person to bundle 12 packets of toilet roll into their shopping cart to induce a second person to do the same; within minutes the shelves are stripped bare as everyone else panics at the sight of rapidly-diminishing supplies. But supermarkets get resupplied by warehouses, and so for the most part a return to quasi-normality can be achieved within a few days.

But what happens when the warehouses run out?

Now that we’ve shut borders and disrupted supply chains, now that we’ve made it very difficult for trucks to ferry goods around our roads, now that we’ve closed down all non-essential businesses, how will the warehouses be restocked when they too run out of supplies?

My guess, for what little it may be worth, is that there are two principal ways by means of which we’re likely to exit today’s self-fulfilling everyone-keep-panicking mode of existence.

The first way will be the result of millions of people getting ever-more-extreme cases of what used to be known as “cabin fever.”

As submarine commanders know, even highly trained and disciplined personnel can begin to get twitchy when forced to exist in confined spaces with very little physical activity for weeks on end. Ordinary civilians, for whom the greatest hardships hitherto have been choosing between two different brands of cheap wine or having to wait three whole minutes for the next free petrol-pump, are unlikely to tolerate indefinite lockdown very well.

Once the initial media-induced terror begins to fade and we grow somewhat bored of endless journalists in facemasks earnestly proclaiming the latest infection and death numbers, we’ll begin to resent the fact we’re stuck indoors 23 hours per day or more. Tempers will fray, personal relationships within homes will become increasingly fraught, and the ordinary inconveniences of being shut indoors will come to feel increasingly unbearable.

At this point, when the national suicide rate will be several times the normal level and when ordinary people are grumbling more about restrictions than screaming for ever-more-stringent “precautionary” measures, even the dullest-witted politician will begin to look for face-saving ways to roll back the more draconian measures they imposed in response to our hysterical demands to be “saved.”

This scenario could take many weeks to play out, and will vary from country to country.

The second scenario is that the mass media and endless Internet babble will keep most people nicely terrified for many months. The media will be resourceful in finding new ways to hype up the infection and death numbers even as 97% of the population contracts mild cases and recovers just fine. After all, an always-on media should have little difficulty in sustaining mass terror because they’ve been practicing for decades and we’re all suckers for context-free sensationalism.

In this second scenario, people will continue to believe that keeping the world on global shutdown is a worthwhile price to pay in order to feel marginally less exposed to unseen danger.

But then… as the weeks turn into months, the warehouses will empty.

There will be little in the way of new rolls of toilet paper appearing on supermarket shelves. The range of basic goods will diminish daily. A second wave of panic will set in as people realize there simply may not be enough food to go around, no matter how stringently supermarket personnel limit purchases to one item per person.

At this point, even the dullest-witted politician will look for face-saving ways to undo the damage caused by the global lockdown. For many, especially in smaller nations, it’s going to be a difficult job. We live in a world of global supply chains and it’s no use one or two nations trying to return to normality if others remain firmly in panic mode.

A much-cited example is that it takes eighteen different countries to make the paper cup into which our Starbucks coffee is poured.

Obviously, we can live without paper cups. But the example holds true for an astonishing range of products, many of which we need for daily survival. Do you know in what country your medical supplies are manufactured, and how many elements of the supply chain (aircraft, trucks, trains, people) are required to get these medicines to you? Do you know how even something as basic as flour requires normality in order to go from wheat to supermarket shelf?

If our global lockdown is sustained for more than a very small number of weeks, it is going to cause absolute havoc with everything we depend on for life itself.

Politicians aren’t thinking about this problem because they’re too busy trying to look “strong and purposeful” on camera in order to retain votes. But at some point in the coming weeks, even the most camera-happy politician will begin to understand that the present course of action is simply untenable. It’s no good talking about “smoothing the curve” of hospital admissions in order to save thousands of lives if millions of lives are being placed in very real danger of starvation.

Today, with everyone in full-on panic mode, this kind of thinking will win no one any friends. When we humans panic the prefrontal cortex of the brain shuts down. As that’s the part of the brain with which we attempt to reason, the consequence is that mass hysteria is totally unconducive to rational behavior. Thus no one will want to hear information that contradicts their present beliefs, prime among which is the idea that this global shutdown is “a price worth paying to save lives.”

The fact that the premise is wrong doesn’t matter today.

But at some point in the weeks ahead, it may come to matter very much indeed.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store