A brief history of ill-advised reactions to adversity
Anyone familiar with the French bande dessinée Astérix le Gaulois will recognize the saying:
Nous n’avons rien à craindre sauf le ciel qui nous tombe sur la tête!
Protected from Roman incursion by their famous magic potion, Asterix’s little band of Gauls had nothing to fear.
Except fear itself.
Let’s step backward in time a little to see a few of the consequences that arise when everyone is so fearful that reason flies out the window.
During World War II, iron railings across the United Kingdom were torn up and thrown into trucks (called “lorries” in British English) that carried them off to collection centers. As a result, quite a few British children were injured or died as a result of falling into rivers and unprotected holes, and a great deal of scarce petroleum was used up to fuel those trucks. Yet only a modest percentage of all the iron was ever used. The vast majority merely rusted away, hidden from sight.
Well, the British were panicking. Nazi Germany had won battle after battle with its combined air-tank-infantry tactic of blitzkrieg (“lightning war”) and the British Expeditionary Force had beaten a retreat to the beaches of Dunkerque, from which it was extracted thanks to Hitler issuing an order to his troops to forebear annihilating them. Although British propaganda tried to turn this retreat into a symbolic victory, with spurious tales of a fleet of “small ships” performing heroic rescues from the beaches, everyone with an iota of military understanding knew that it had been in reality a grave defeat. Thus the UK seemed to lie wide open.
As is often the case, politicians felt the need for gestures. No one, least of all those in positions of authority, likes to feel powerless. So the decision was made to tear up all the iron railings and gates across the nation and people were told this was their way to “help defeat the Nazis” because all the iron collected would be turned into airplanes and tanks and other weapons. And so thousands of British people dutifully tore up their iron railings and gates and gathered up their iron pots and pans for collection.
Sadly, while it may have created a temporary sense of purpose for a few innocent souls, the hard fact is that all the inconvenience this caused made little positive difference to the war effort. British steel mills had only modest capacity and there was simply far too much iron to smelt. The iron was collected merely because politicians felt they had to be seen “to be doing something.”
After the events of September 11th 2001, President George W Bush ordered the National Guard to be stationed outside all international airports. There was no counter-terrorist validity for this gesture, as National Guard troops had zero capacity to distinguish between legitimate travelers and potential hijackers, nor the training necessary to interdict them even if any terrorists had been foolish enough to stroll up to a National Guard and announce their malign intention.
Putting the National Guard at airports was a pointless gesture, but no doubt a great many US citizens imagined that somehow it would make them safer and of course it enabled Bush to feel that he could be seen “to be doing something” especially after having vanished from sight for so many long hours in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. People were panicking and those in power didn’t want to feel nor look helpless in the face of an unexpected disaster.
Across the world today, young people are returning home as their places of education are shutting down. At my son’s university in the UK, the staff know perfectly well that closing the institution will inflict significant harm on those studying for their degrees and will be utterly pointless in terms of minimizing the spread of COVID-19. But the staff also know that if they aren’t seen “to be doing something” then the institution will likely suffer significant reputational damage.
So they are trapped, because of mass hysteria and mindless panic, into doing something they know to be wrong merely because everyone expects them to do it. As one of the professors noted, “apparently this is no time for anyone to be seen behaving in a rational manner.”
It’s impossible not to think of the days of plague, when people would rush in panic out of the cities and thus carry the plague to all the small villages and hamlets that otherwise would likely not have experienced the disease at all because of their natural isolation.
The hard fact is that even though governments can call on the advice of experts, very often public policy is determined by what appears to be expedient rather than what is likely to be effective. The general public clamors for “something to be done” and politicians respond. Who cares if those responses are ineffectual or, as is not infrequently the case, actually make things worse? When we’re all panicking, anything seems better than nothing. We want action! We want to be protected! This is no time for a reasoned and measured approach!
Today, with the sensationalism surrounding COVID-19, we’re once again seeing a lot of seemingly tough measures. As of 17th March 2020, it appears that European nations will shut down their borders to all non-essential travel, following the example of other countries including the USA. This is a basic primitive human impulse: keep “them” away from us!
But it’s worth considering, for just a moment or two before we resume our traditional panic, whether this measure will do far more harm than good.
Forget about the millions of lost jobs. No one cares about other people’s hardships. Let’s focus simply on the maintenance of health services, because if there’s one thing that governments ought to be doing, it’s maximizing the capacity of health services to continue to function.
The putative reason given for closing borders is to slow down the spread of the virus among the population in order to “smooth the curve” of chronic cases that will need treatment. This is what we’re all being told. Except health care experts, including the World Health Organization, have all said plainly that closing borders will make almost no difference whatsoever to the spread of the virus.
If the closed-borders policy was merely pointless and ineffective, that wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, as the WHO and many other health care experts also know, closing borders causes massive disruption to health care services. Supplies don’t get to hospitals and workers can’t get to their jobs.
Here in Switzerland, a country to which many from Italy, Germany, and France commute daily, the effects are very serious indeed. The city of Geneva is very close to the border with France and consequently around 60% of Geneva health care workers actually commute into Switzerland each day from France. The border closure means that Geneva will have to make do with only 40% of its health care workers at a time when demand is increasing because of viral infections.
It is difficult to imagine a more counter-productive approach to disease management.
All because everyone is happily panicking and politicians want to be seen “to be doing something.”
The fact is, making decisions shaped by mass hysteria is a very poor basis for good governance and an even worse basis for effective action. With each new day the media hype-government action cycle ramps up another notch, more people feel more afraid, and coherent policy recedes further into the distance.
Which is the precise opposite of what we actually need.
If we could all just stop panicking for a few moments and start thinking instead, everyone would be a great deal better off.
But it’s so much easier to be hysterical because everyone around us is terrified and the media is ramming fear down our throats 24/7. So our “leaders” will continue to implement policies that are counter-productive and we’ll continue to demand that they do so.
Because there’s nowhere for rational thought to gain purchase when everyone’s lost their heads.