Let me inject something into the void between “OMG, coronavirus will kill us all” and “it’s a serious virus but let’s be rational”. Let’s consider the state of current society — something we don’t often do. I tend to lean to the “let’s be rational” side of the equation but this is primarily an observational article. At time of writing, there are six cases of corona virus in my country, Denmark. Three more and we can bring back this stupid song from the 90's.
One of the most influential books I’ve ever read is “The Culture of Fear”, by British sociologist, Frank Furedi. In a nutshell, he explains how we transitioned from a sense of “community” that was the norm throughout human history to the current state of “individualism”. He focuses on this decline in the UK. Some countries, like the US, are far worse off. Many, like countries in Europe, are better off. But the same pattern applies, nonetheless.
In our community state, our primary concern was each other — “we’re in it together”. In our individualistic state, it is ourselves and our immediate loved ones — “it’s Us vs Them”.
Before, when a crisis struck, we only thought about our collective well-being and worked together to tackle adversity. The adversity was not the focus — helping was. Now the primary focus is accountability. Flood? Terror attack? Virus? “Who is responsible!? Someone did this to me! Someone failed to prevent it! Name and shame!”
Authorities on every level are now acutely aware of this, not least because of the internet and social media. Lessons have been learned, large and small. George Bush was pilloried for his slow response to Hurricane Katrina. British Rail were ridiculed in 1991 for trying unsuccessfully to make excuses for train delays by citing that “the wrong kind of snow” fell from the skies.
Just look at the way adverse weather events are hyped in the media. A severe winter storm is now a “polar vortex”. Our media-driven headline society feeds off of events like never before. And authorities react to the hype.
Faced by this new wave of incensed criticism from a public mostly concerned with themselves and who are capable of assembling pitchfork-carrying mobs on the internet, authorities on every level of government are now extremely cautious and often over-exaggerated in their preparedness.
This new public are easily swayed by sensationalist headlines and news feeds filled with collective worry from other members of their silo/tribe and this worry magnifies quickly.
When Copenhagen was hit by a terror attack in 2015 — the Copenhagen Shootings — law enforcement tackled it well. But a decision was made to keep heavily-armed police on the streets for AGES afterwards, at an outrageous cost to taxpayers. For many it was an affront to see machine guns outside markets and pragmatic Danes could figure out it was mostly for show and wouldn’t be very effective in an actual event. It was as though the authorities were compensating for the attack and making theatrical efforts to make those stupid citizens “feel safe”. It looked quite ridiculous in safe city like Copenhagen. In other cities, like Paris, a high level of alert makes more sense and IS often effective.
Authorities around the world have adopted an exaggerated “better safe than sorry” strategy in preemptive desperation. Crazy weather events are scaled up and the warnings from the authorities are often over the top so that everyone's ass is covered if it all goes wrong.
If that storm fails to bring the destruction that was forecast, it is far easier to say, “Whew, we feared the worst and were lucky. Thank goodness we aimed too high in our warnings” than facing an angry public demanding accountability.
They will, hopefully, be satisfied with the exaggeration and move on with their lives. No harm, no foul.
This is where we’re at in our societies. This is where we’ve ended up. In the industrialised world we live in the safest period in the history of homo sapiens. In The Culture of Fear you can read about how people will now try to “construct fear” in order to manipulate us and profit from it. The book covers the rise of sunscreen as an example (yes, you drank THAT koolaid to some extent), but there are countless others, like bike helmets, which I discuss in this TEDx talk of mine.
So here we are, with news feeds filled with the corona virus. Face masks sold out, supermarket shelves emptying, events cancelled. At this Berlin bar from whence I’m writing (I often write this stuff on my phone whilst travelling) a gentleman in his 50's I was talking to refused to shake my hand. His girlfriend and I teased him about it but he wouldn’t budge. I can read that this is a thing at the moment, it was just my first experience with it.
Sure, every nation and city should take precautions. There is a risk. A viral pandemic is a global threat. Hey, I’ve played the Plague Inc app and succeeded (once) to kill everyone on earth. I don’t criticise the reaction. Stopping flights from Iran seems fair enough, given the lack of information about the scale of the outbreak. Travel advisories for certain regions in Northern Italy make sense. I just find it interesting to recall the wise and cautionary words in Frank Furedi’s book and apply a much-needed grain of salt to the avalanche of warnings. The over-the-top warnings are a result of societal development — a development that isn’t positive. Look at the racism that has emerged since the virus started to spread. Us vs Them.
When I landed in Germany today, a push link appeared in my Facebook feed with a link to a German government website about what precautions to take. The same WHO precautions that you’ve been reading for a couple of weeks in whatever language you read them in. Careful!
Let’s hope corona goes the same way as SARS or bird flu. Despite the cautionary hype, many countries are actually prepared. When corona (hopefully) fades, keep an eye on the rhetoric from your authorities. “We did it. We beat it. See?! Can’t be too careful!!” In some countries, politicians will be seen to portray themselves as victors.
It’s the same regardless of the impending event and yet we have just selectively chosen to ignore it.
Me? I’m washing my hands better. I’m checking for news about the situation in the places I’m travelling to. You are, too. Good work, team.
After I arrived in Berlin I was offline for several hours as I walked around the city and met friends. Miraculously, the corona virus had disappeared. But my hands were clean.