Mental Health in a Covid-World
“January has been the longest year of my life”. The meme satirizing the exhausting month of January 2020 spread nearly as virally across social media as Covid-19 has across borders. Just as President Trump’s impeachment trial was wrapping up, he picked a Twitter fight with Iran almost igniting World War III, fires engulfed Australia, China’s lockdown stifled the entire global economy, and basketball legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter passed away in a tragic helicopter crash. Within less than 31 days, the ebullient tone of the new decade was shattered, prompting a lot of us to contend: “what the hell just happened?”. At times I was half-expecting Ashton Kutcher to claim January as the greatest episode of Pranked of all times.
Now as I write this, we just culminated the first quarter, and internet comedians are in even higher supply. Memes reflecting on the punishing months of 2020 have been floating around the internet, as the contretemps of March make January pale in comparison. There was an implicit agreement to skip April Fools this year, because “no made up prank could match the unbelievable shit going on in the world right now”. It’s a palpable feeling of anguish that has permeated cultures and demographics, and it’s made me really reflect, what the hell is going on?
World War V (Virus)?
The Covid-19 pandemic has been repeatedly referred to as war. And I know tragedies and shared pain can bring people together, like having a common enemy. The eternal optimists find the silver lining in how they put life in perspective, heightening e fragility and brevity of life. But this virus is peculiar; we have now become each other’s greatest danger. From an evolutionary perspective, we just don’t have refined social mechanisms for this type of crisis. Instead of the typical “us versus them” war time sentiment, it’s a “me against everyone else”. As herd animals, we’re programmed for pro-sociality and community building, we’re not good at this “social distancing” thing. Possibly because there has never been a time in history when the entire world collectively embraced social distancing, curfews, quarantines, lockdowns and Marshall Law. To paraphrase the latest political platitude, “these are entirely unprecedented times”.
So how can we cope? Collectively, these past few months have taken a dramatic toll on our mental health. Marked by the fear of an invisible enemy, a strict quarantine, mistrust of officials managing the outbreak, and a wave of social media misinformation, we’re confused as hell! As former Secretary of State (and advisor to another President famous for scandal) Henry Kissinger wrote, “there is a sense of inchoate danger, aimed not at any particular person, but striking randomly”.
What’s the Scoop?
The headlines are dire: the economic fallout from this pandemic might be the biggest shock in generations. The Dow and the FTSE saw their biggest one-day declines since 1987. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the coronavirus outbreak a “global pandemic” on March 11th, as the outbreak spread beyond 100 countries. Total infections are continuing to accelerate with the global infection toll surpassing 2 million with more than 135,000 deaths as of April 16.
The outbreak has painfully weighed on global financial markets, which have seen a synchronized sell-off in stocks, bonds and commodities as investors have raced to buffer themselves from the widening economic damage. Policymakers are acting in unison, employing severe monetary policies to cushion consumer demand drop and keep illiquid firms solvent. A quarter of all restaurants and retail will close permanently. Rent and tax moratoriums combine in many cities, threatening small landlords and large institutions alike, who default on their debt, sending the economy into a tailspin of further contractions. Companies of all sizes execute mass layoffs. The US Treasury secretary, Steve Mnuchin, warned that the unemployment rate could skyrocket to above 20%.
It's easy to start feeling down and dejected. You read the headlines and watch the news and it feels like we’re caught somewhere between World War Z and the Great Depression. We’ve already entered a global recession, and many experts project a deeper and more protracted depression that could last years. Most countries have abandoned globalization, sealing their borders in a desperate attempt to contain the virus. It’s a reality reminiscent to a time that most of us alive today, have only ever seen through Hollywood.
A mental health crisis has already begun due to quarantining and rising unemployment. Depression, anxiety and suicide rise while other pre-existing conditions are exacerbated. Violence, especially domestic abuse, increases markedly. The poor are impacted hardest as temporary and non-essential jobs thin out, savings in many cases are non-existent, and those “fortunate” enough to be subsisting, reflect nervously on the coming days. In many countries, particularly in the low-income areas, dense, multigenerational, multi-tenant living conditions factor in, where both disease and poverty are rampant. Neurosis develops in real-time, as some grapple with immediate physical realities, while others suffer PTSD from containment. It’s a dark narrative that has had some, curious, side effects.
Our Response to Pandemonium: Buy Toilet Paper?
First it was the masks, then hand sanitizers, and eventually, toilet paper. Shelves were pillaged across the world. In Australia, a newspaper generously printed out an extra eight pages as a "backup loo roll". The scenes are inescapable: fights have broken out, trolleys piled high with provisions, leading many supermarkets to impose limits on individual purchases. Dubbed #ToiletPaperPanic and #ToiletPaperApocalypse online, there is no shortage of videos capturing the mass hysteria that swept globally as shelves were cleared. Brits alone stockpiled more than £1billion worth of canned goods, water bottles and pasta in the month of March.
So, why are we seeing panic buying across the globe?
A common human response to crisis, panic buying is rooted in the primal fear of scarcity. Indeed, hoarding is a well-documented response to existential threats; Doomsdayers have been doing this for centuries. You see, pandemics cause us to develop a heightened mortality salience. And since we’re programmed to avoid our mortality like the plague, we shift into autopilot fueled by panic. And as panic causes the “thinking” part of our brains to go offline, we regress into survival mode, where our formerly rational minds are tricked into perceiving scarcity. The panic is contagious. Though ironically, this scarcity-mindset is a self-fulfilling prophesy; as people anxiously stockpile, the panic spreads, driving otherwise rational people to follow suit. Parallels between Covid-19 and earlier pandemics like the 1918 Spanish flu, during which Vicks VapoRub disappeared off shelves, are evident, along with the 1968 flu pandemic when food was looted from restaurants. But headlines travel much faster in the internet economy, so the toilet paper tug-o-war videos cause us to subconsciously perceive an urgency, which leads to domino effect of panic buying. The restrictions on movement coupled with a daily media drip-feed of unease have been unlike anything familiar. For many, whether perceived or real, this existential threat would be the first in their lifetimes. As the Harvard epidemiologist Karestan Koenen says, “food buying helps us feel in control”, like we’re taking back from ownership for our destinies.
The Height of #FakeNews
Did you know that Covid-19 is caused by 5G networks? Or that the Chinese released it deliberately as a bioweapon as retribution for the trade deal with America? And you can cure it cow urine, or by guzzling bootlegged alcohol, and even poisoning it with cocaine?
None of the above is true, yet each has convinced millions around the world through a vast of catena of conspiracy theories, scams, and disinformation networks. “Quack cures from the depths of the internet are surfacing globally. These ‘miracle stories’ spread like wildfire, warping people's understanding of what they need to do to avoid or treat the virus, undermining true data”.
Some coming from spurious sources, or even coming from country presidents. Others, more insidious, lay blame to political balkanization. Vehement claims that the virus was nothing more than a Democratic hoax aimed at impeachment, has divided America. One poll by YouGov and the Economist in March 2020 found 13% of Americans believed the Covid-19 crisis was a hoax. Even more concerning, a whole 49% believed the epidemic was a form of bio-terrorism. At one point, US and Chinese officials, for example, took turns accusing each other's governments of having bioengineered the coronavirus pandemic, and both Iranian officials, as well as Russian state TV channels blamed Washington. And at the deep fringe, there’s been deliberate spreading of disinformation to rattle social or racial tensions, where white supremacists are particularly active. “It pulls everyone out of the woodwork,” says Daniel Rogers, co-founder of the nonprofit Global Disinformation Index, which works to counter false information sources on the internet. “Every scam artist, every bunk cure peddler, every conspirator, every internet troll”.
The UN and World Health Organization have called this an "infodemic," which is spreading concurrently with the pandemic and aggravating earnest efforts to slow and treat the spread of the virus. “Fake news” relating to basic terrestrial facts of epidemiology have become so malignant that the WHO even had to publish an official myth-buster. Given the extent of all this false information and the human stakes involved, the coronavirus has been labelled the "Super Bowl of disinformation” by the Global Disinformation Index.
Blaming and Shaming
The public forums of Twitter and Facebook during this pandemic have seriously made me question the theory of evolution. Between the desperate attempts of “influencers” to maintain stardom, and people who have such abysmal social etiquette that they find it comedic to cough on the elderly, I’ve found myself simultaneously horrified and confused. But the truly most primitive of behaviours I’ve witnessed, are the lengths people have gone to shame lockdown naysayers.
How can one be a lockdown naysayer, you ask? Well, on the opposite end of the behavioral spectrum from panic buying, is pandemic denying. Also a fear-based response, though expressed by acting resilient and rejecting data as incidental or for “scaredy-cats”. We’re seeing this in shocking numbers in the US, where the virus seems to have only further exacerbated existing hostile bipartisanship. By early March, 59% of Democrats believed the virus was a major threat to US health, while only 23% of Republicans felt the same. Regardless of the justification, the polarization has led to a pernicious outpouring of public shaming.
Thanks to the soap boxes of social media, everyone’s highly opinionated (albeit, often ill-informed) views are being broadcasted for the many. Social media is particularly mired with vitriolic content as people of all backgrounds are blaming, naming, and shaming others for violating accepted pandemic practices. Victims range from coughing commuters, to flower market owners, Stereophonics fans, and the contumelious Florida Spring Breakers. The term “covidiot” was first uploaded to the colloquial lexicon Urban Dictionary on March 16th and is defined as: “someone who ignores warnings regarding public health or safety.” Shortly after, the hashtag #Covidiot exploded on Twitter, with more than 3,000 tweets lambasting reckless behavior. One social media comedian provided a comprehensive list of Covidiocy symptoms, described as an “extraordinary sense of self-importance, generally low I.Q, a natural attraction to toilet paper, predominant diet of pasta, and no idea of personal space.” Even the mayor of Hawaii has adopted the term.
Though perhaps the most egregious shaming came when CBS News tweeted a video of American spring breakers partying in Miami. In the video, students unabashedly disregard social distancing advisements, with one student declaring: “If I get corona, I get corona, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” The video was subtitled with the full names of every student interviewed and was liked more than 96,000 times and flooded with comments. People began tweeting the students’ names, writing debasing comments like: “I have a feeling the following people will have a hard time finding a job upon graduation” (295 likes) and “Hospitals take note of these names. Do not give these selfish dumbfucks beds or respirators” (84 likes). Some went further and contacted the students’ schools, with one tweeter calling for a student’s scholarship to be rescinded (the same student later deleted their Facebook page).”
In all of these cases, the Internet descends into a poisonous display of judgment, schadenfreude and opprobrium. What is it about fear that drives us to our absolute baser instincts? “Third-party punishment” as it’s referred to in behavioral psychology, happens when we punish people who we perceive to be behaving badly and violating social rules, even when their actions don’t directly affect us. It’s regrettably common in the 2020 social media ecosystem.
Though in the case of Covid, others’ actions do indeed, directly, affect us. So it’s a bit of a conundrum from a civility perspective. In some instances, public shaming can be a tool for the greater good - after a Tennessee man received a barrage of angry comments for stockpiling nearly 20,000 bottles of hand sanitizer to sell for inflated prices, he expressed remorse and donated his stock to a local church. But, it’s impossible to know how these kinds of attacks impact people personally, until it is too late. A Polish professor allegedly took his own life after being bombarded with hateful online comments for supposedly thwarting quarantine orders (which was subsequently proven untrue).
Fear of the “Other”
Of a similarly baser nature, xenophobia is at a generational high. Inside China, Wuhan citizens were treated like lepers. And in the rest of the world, anyone that even resembles Chinese, is potentially a victim of blatant aversion, or even worse, physical and verbal abuse. Mr. Trump’s insistence on calling it “the Chinese virus”, certainly isn’t helping: “China is to blame because the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that … that’s why China has been a source of a lot of these viruses”.
While this may be a factual statement, and indeed, a critical point to investigate, it is the second-order consequences that we must consider. The anecdotal claims are manifold: a New York-based Asian woman wearing a face mask was assaulted and called “diseased”; one California couple had their car tagged with the word “fuck Asians … and coronavirus”; and restaurants in Seoul reportedly posted signs stating: "No Chinese Allowed". The French newspaper Le Courrier Picard featured an Asian woman wearing a mask on its front page with a headline "Yellow Alert"; a Singaporean Chinese student studying at University College London was attacked and blamed for coronavirus, suffering fractures on his face and bruises on his eye.
Due to some deeply evolved responses to disease, fears of contagion can cause us to become conformist and tribalistic, generally less accepting of eccentricity or perceived difference. Our moral judgements become harsher and our social attitudes more conservative, as the threat of disease causes heightened distrust and suspicion of people outside our immediate group. It’s an evolved set of unconscious psychosocial responses – known as the “behavioral immune system” – to a perceived external threat. It’s intended to act as a first line of defense against pathogens, by incentivizing us away from contact with potential contagion and those who may not abide by our preventative customs. The instinct is to minimize contact with non-conformists who might be acutely at risk for transmission. We experience this with food that smells off or places that we conclude are unsanitary – it’s an instinctual response to avoid contamination. But this developmental reaction has ugly consequences in world of globalization. And sadly, these responses can be quite crude, leading us to establish unconscious biases and connections to people that are in fact, unrelated to the threat. But regardless of the developmental justifications for the fear, we know rationally that diseases don’t discriminate. They affect all of humanity equally, regardless of race, class or culture.
But Why? Lack of Trust in Government and Institutions
According to the Pew Research Center, public trust in government reached its peak in 1964, with 77 percent favorability. It’s near historic lows of around 17 percent today. With the exception of a few extraordinary incidents, the trajectory for trust in government has been a straight downward curve for the last half century. The same trend is echoed in Gallup’s poll regarding other public institutions like the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, churches, public schools, and the news media.
People didn’t spontaneously develop a crippling distrust of government; “they endured Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-Contra, Iraq, Katrina, the financial crisis, the presidency of Donald Trump, Citizens United, corporate concentration, Cambridge Analytica, and 40 years of stagnant wages and skyrocketing inequality”. Moreover, American conservatives who believe in the fundamental flaws of government, are hellbent on sending through a wrecking ball of public service dissolution, at all costs. This includes Trump’s defunding of the entire global health security unit of the National Security Council, eliminating the government’s $30 million Complex Crises Fund, reducing national health spending by $15 billion, and slashing the CDC’s budget by 80%.
But this bleak phenomenon seems uniquely applicable to the West; Harvard researchers concluded that following 2003 the SARS outbreak, citizens from Hong King, Singapore, or Taiwan were significantly more likely than Americans to trust government information about public health. Consider that this was long before the “Baghdad Bob–style pronouncements about coronavirus from this president and his loyal disciples”. Trumps relationship to the truth and fact-based information in recent months is more precarious than ever; his comments are almost always at odds with reality. Since January, Trump has downplayed the threat for nakedly political reasons almost like clockwork, rejecting recommendations from experts and clinicians alike. He even went as far claiming that he didn’t want an infected cruise ship with Americans on board to dock because he liked the “infection numbers” staying where they were. Rather than leading the country through its greatest period of turmoil since taking office, Trump’s only modus operandi seems to be ratings and the upcoming election, with all else either coming secondary or in direct opposition to his goals.
In addition to the incongruent communications and utter lack of leadership, we’ve had a failure in technical and medical response too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s botched testing kits set the US back in identifying exposure to the virus. China’s national health commission said the situation was “preventable” and “controllable”. And in early January, the World Health Organization even stated that the virus was “not likely transmitted from human-to-human”. The inconsistent facts, combined with the initial (potentially deliberate) downplaying of the virus by several governments, in particular, China and the US, eroded trust in both data veracity and capacity for response.
So what happens when uncertainty rules and official sources are no longer trusted? We must resort to our own assessments of risk. Panic and fear can induce irrationality into any calculus. And when political conversations rub against logic, people will hitch to their arguments. Forced even further down the rabbit hole of self-imposed echo chambers, we blind ourselves to any potential truth. This causes society to atomize further. As British Economist William Forster Lloyd first argued when he coined the term “tragedy of the commons”, in a society where resources are shared, individuals prioritizing their own self-interest can deprive others. People are not only fearful about catching the virus, they are uncertain about the future, and they distrust their governments. Therefore the default of right-wing populism, premised on limited sense of shared solidarity, is almost the most logical response. The community can no longer provide a sense of safety or justify individual sacrifice.
This is particularly visible in the US, where each state was tasked to fight its own battle. The EU as well. There was no coordinated support, no consistent rhetoric, no public or humble acknowledgement of the threat early on, no candor. In a war time situation, those at battle are led by a Commander-in-Chief who cogently identifies the threat, lays out a rational plan backed by data or experience, and disseminates through its pre-ordained channels, the plan of attack. This serves to quell disintermediation, to preempt fear and overreaction, and to empower actors within. If we’re talking about this as a war, why aren’t we borrowing the lessons from the veterans who’ve actually faced war? A fragmented and top-down system is exactly the opposite of what you need when fighting a network spread. With each state (or country) opportunistically fending for itself, competition is fostered creating a mindset of every man for himself. Reports of increased sales of firearms speak loudest to this phenomenon – it’s not like any rational person thinks they’re going to shoot a virus, so who is the gun for? People have entirely lost confidence that the system is going to work.
I think we’ll come to blame many of the second- and third-order consequences of the crisis on a categoric failure of leadership. As Henry Kissinger wrote, “nations cohere and flourish on the belief that their institutions can foresee calamity, arrest its impact and restore stability. When the Covid-19 pandemic is over, many countries’ institutions will be perceived as having failed. Whether this judgment is objectively fair is irrelevant”. Almost systemically, the lack of true political, scientific and cultural leadership has propelled society into a state of fear and panic, that to some degree, could have been avoided.
No Consistent Data or Clear Timeline
And once you have a dearth of information because there’s no clear leadership, people are left to create their own stories. The media latches on to half-baked narratives and embellishes, infers and critiques through headlines aimed at earning eyeballs and likes rather than sharing facts. Indeed, even the scientists are still lacking science-backed data, so many of the recommendations are based on educated-guesses, at best. The uncertainty of incubation, infectiousness, manners of transmission, immunity, and death rate has left many scrambling for information, creating space for charlatans and bad actors to insert their own self-benefitting narratives. The combination leads to panic and suboptimal, or ill-informed decisions. Upbeat reassurances from President Trump contrasted with bland quasi-scientific statements from epidemiologists who suggested a looming crisis, that “would get much worse before it gets better”, confuse the public, leaving them stranded to their own devices.
But the constant bombardment of conflicting information and insecurity has rather insidious effects on our psychology. “I cannot give a blueprint or a recipe of statistics for when it will be advisable for people to leave their homes again”, said Lothar Wieler, president of the Robert Koch Institute, the German government’s body in charge of disease-monitoring and control. Indefinite quarantines with no well-defined end point – such as those imposed in Wuhan – risk having the most negative side-effects. The term “fatigue” conjures up middle-class sacrifices, but for some there are harsher realities that make compliance with extensive social distancing measures – like those employed in Italy – more difficult. “It's just a sense of all-over-the-place-ness”. People are experiencing prolonged uncertainty, acute stress, grief that the world you've known is suddenly unpredictable.
Unemployment and Livelihood Loss
Economic stress is one of the fastest causes of a breakdown in social order. Coronavirus is imbuing a sense of insecurity at a very basic level, at an intensity that is new to most of us.
In the last three weeks, more than 16 million people have filed for unemployment insurance in the US alone. That is 10% of the workforce. And these numbers actually understate the extent of the problem as they exclude gig workers who aren’t even eligible for unemployment insurance. The next few weeks won't bring much of a respite; economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman thinks the US unemployment rate could reach 20% in a few weeks. That would be twice the peak level of unemployment as the Great Financial Crisis, and almost as high as the staggering 25% peak in the Great Depression. Over two-thirds of American adults anticipate the coronavirus to impact their financial situation due to unexpected medical expenses, inability to work and declining value of stock portfolios. Oxfam calculates that the pandemic could plunge 500 million people into poverty, rising global poverty levels for the first time in three decades. One facetious Twitter account claimed, “it’s like we’re living in Pride Rock when Scar took over”.
And individual psychology also trickles up to affect companies. Both Apple and Nintendo announced negative revenue projections due to bottlenecks in components manufactured in China. China's economy is 4 times more consequential than it was during SARS in 2003, responsible for approximately 16% of global GDP. The delays in China’s production directly impacts the bottom line of companies the world over. Combined with effects on sales due to store closures and reticent shoppers means consumer products are being hit hard. Investment and supply-chain decisions are governed by projections about demand during an epidemic and the recovery from it. So while many will revel in the downfall of corporatism and materialistic consumption, the reality is, it’s the livelihood of the employees of these giants, that will suffer most; companies will inevitably get bailouts, but the global pandemic of unemployment will be slower to recover.
And critically there is one thing that almost all shocks have in common is that they hit the poorest and the most vulnerable the hardest. They act as poverty multipliers, forcing families into extreme poverty owing to unexpected healthcare costs and forcing those without a financial safety net, living paycheck-to-paycheck, out of their income stream. At least half of the world’s population does not enjoy full coverage for the most basic health services or even have savings to last through a month.
This is, of course, a financial challenge for many who have suddenly lost their income, but it also presents a psychological challenge. Losing any job can be emotionally taxing, but to do so in our current environment of heightened uncertainty can add additional stressors into the mix. Psychologists note that losing a job often equates to the grief of losing a loved one; the emotional trajectory can include any of the stages of grief, which run from shock and denial, through to anger and bargaining. For those in unhealthy relationships, being locked up for weeks or months with a partner – especially with one who has suffered a loss of livelihood – can even led to a spike in domestic violence.
So how do we measure the health consequences of taking people’s lives, jobs, leisure and purpose, and presenting them with outsized physical dangers at home? Which causes least harm? The moral debate is not: lives versus money. It is lives versus lives. The wider implications of halting the economy and confining people to their homes, might in fact, be worse than the immediate health risks of the virus. The interruption of children’s education, the rise in mental ill-health; the depression, the suicides, the loneliness and fear. There will be difficult tradeoffs between doing everything possible to save lives from Covid-19, and indirectly causing other life-threatening harms.
Being in lockdown requires extraordinary mental gymnastics. Physiologically speaking, our limbic system has been in overdrive for months. The amygdala – the fear center of our brain – is responsible for detecting threats and preparing for emergency events; or primitively, calculating whether to fight, flight, or freeze. All three manifest physically; our bodies instinctively shut down non-essential functions to allocate energy to our emergency response. But in the instance of coronavirus, we can’t fight or flee, so we become frozen. And when we freeze, we signal our bodies to become lethargic. This is why many people are experiencing physical exhaustion as they grapple with the onslaught of new information and oppressive experiences. It’s a basic biological response.
The acute stress and prolonged uncertainty that comes with no end in sight; the grief that comes with the world that you have known no longer being predictable. Everyone has different coping styles to grief, and how they deal with the unknown. Shout, a free 24-hour texting service for people in crisis has experienced a steady increase in the number of people contacting them, peaking at more than 1,000 conversations. "It is just anxiety, anxiety, anxiety," says Amy, one of Shout's Crisis Volunteers. It’s a pervasive theme of lack of control, which is a feeling most akin to grief.
Grief is not just about death in the physical sense. It’s the grief that accompanies a worldview. And what happens when you have a plague, when you have a pandemic, is that you are reminded that death can randomly exterminate you, throwing your world completely upside down. And what’s even worse, are the narratives warning us that “the worst is yet to come”. It’s like we’ve been suspended at the beginning of a horror film as the action is building up, and we know the boogey man is just around the corner. Everyone is talking about it coming and we’re getting really scared for what’s about to come. That impending loss is called “anticipatory grief”. And it some ways, it’s more torturous than immediate loss because we aren’t given permission to truly release it. We’re just waiting, in limbo, for some unknown future precipice of loss.
And since grief is non-linear, people experience the process differently. This is why some people stockpile; they’re getting into gear to fight the battle. And why others have felt delayed reactions; we were in denial: it was always happening elsewhere, not here. And even the bargaining, where we desperately seek to alleviate the chaos and confusion through that third closet purge and photo album reorg. With grief, release and acceptance mark the final stage, when one can finally detach from old realities and accept a new one. And the hope is that the new reality will reveal something better, perhaps more, human, than before.
Silver Lining - Connecting Humanity
The coronavirus pandemic is going to cause immense pain and suffering. But it will force us to reconsider who we are and what we value. In the long run, it could help us discover a better version of ourselves. When this crisis ends, I hope we will reorient our politics and make substantial new investments in public goods—for health, especially. I don’t think we will become less communal. Instead, we will be more conscious, more aware, of our interdependency. I hope that it will mark the end of our romance with instant gratification and hyper-individualism. As we’ve witnessed the market-based models for social organization fail, catastrophically, self-seeking behavior makes this crisis so much more dangerous than it needed to be. The economy and social order would have collapsed into anarchy if the government didn’t guarantee income for the millions of workers who suffered unemployment.
But while many of our institutions have failed, the civic responsibility and altruism of millions who have stayed home, lost income, kept their kids inside, self-quarantined, refrained from hoarding, supported each other, and even pooled resources to bolster health workers, leads me to the belief in a better future. Harnessing a new sense of solidarity, we have the opportunity to unify to face the enormous global challenges ahead.
One inspiring outcome from the lockdown is how people are finding new ways to connect and support each other through adversity. Being social animals, our natural instinct during times of crisis is to connect. Not asynchronously through drip feeds of our curated lives, engaging only as voyeurs. But by coexisting, concurrently. Attention-heavy “synchronous” conversations like raw and unfiltered videochats can foster a new form of closeness reminiscent to older eras. Professional enterprise technology – Zoom and TEAMS, for example – have been usurped for “meandering, motive-less togetherness”. Thank god for this sufficiently advanced technology that is practically indistinguishable from magic…or we’d all be channeling our inner Cast Away!
In the default world, our time is occupied by acquaintances of convenience or circumstance. The co-workers who share our office. The friends who live nearby. The parents of the children our kids go to school with. We’re strikingly un-intentional and mundane about our relationships. But now we’re motivated to build a virtual family, completely of our choosing. The calculus has shifted from who is convenient or who has the best invitation, to who makes us feel most human. We’re returning to the form of youthful socialization of just “hanging out”. In the past two months, I’ve connected with old friends I haven’t seen together in a decade, met new partners I hadn’t yet seen in real life, and have had near daily check-ins with both of my parents. In some ways, the pandemic is forcing a new and improved form of mediated social connection – the way connecting is innately meant to be.
Another form of raw humanity that’s arising from Covid is the frequent but lightweight communication of sharing videos and memes. The internet’s response to COVID-19 has been a global outpour of gallows humor. From Facebook groups like the quarter-million member “Zoom Memes for Quaranteens”, to the sardonic Instagram Quentin Quarantine, and the myriad of TikTokers all joining up to weather the crisis. “Memes allow us to convert our creeping dread and stir craziness into something borderline productive. Memes offer a new medium of solidarity, of one-ness; we’re all in this hellscape together so we may as well make fun of it. As one of my friend’s often claims, “we laugh because if we didn’t, we’d cry”. So we force laughter, self-deprecating, but oddly familiar, formulating a connection through the deep understanding of each other’s misery. “Powerless and isolated, we’re finding that the joke is now our most reliable shield—and our warmest comfort blanket”.
Oddly, what remains feels more social than social networks have in a long time. Perhaps it’s because the flood of status symbol content into Instagram Stories has been replaced by our lives in the flesh. No one is going out and doing anything cool to show off, and if they are, they should be ashamed of themselves. For the first time since the dawn of social media, people are sharing their lives in the present, unfiltered, with no lighting or edits or make up. Our highly curated autobiographical content has screeched to a halt, and thank God, it was about time. We had turned social media into a sport where we spent the whole time staring at the scoreboard. It’s freed us from the external validation that too often rules our decision making, because fortunately, there are no Like counts on Zoom. Coronavirus has absolved our desire to share the recent past, and our near future is so uncertain that there’s little sense in making plans. As shelter-in-place orders get extended in piecemeal, we have no choice but to remain firmly fixed in the present.
And much like our intentional communities, social media has become less about how it looks, and more about how it feels. Does it put me at peace, make me laugh, or abate the loneliness? Then do it. There’s no more FOMO because there’s nothing to miss. Staying at home enjoying some self-indulgence finally doesn’t have a trade-off. Even celebrities are getting into it. Rather than professional photos and flashy music videos, they’re unedited, and truly live. John Legend did a live quarantine concert with his wife Chrissy Teigen sitting in a towel, Coldplay’s Chris Martin streamed a song with the tag #TogetherAtHome, promoting the online entertainment of isolated fans, and some even use their platforms to urge people to stay at home.
Social media was ready for a colossal shift. For the past 18 months at least, I’ve felt nauseated by it all – the virtue signaling, the status symbols, the FOMO-inducing stories, the blatantly plastic or plastered, and the #blessed. The solipsism on Instagram that comes with flying on someone else’s jet or sailing on a billionaire’s yacht, it just felt so…over the top. Kind of like the visceral feeling of angst that you get in Las Vegas or Dubai. And Facebook and Twitter weren’t any better. The vitriolic comments, deliberate shaming, the fake news and just generally vapid chatter, has permeated my online experiences for years. But suddenly, the discourse shifted. The nature of conversations recently has shifted from utterly vacuous brain candy, to profound, useful, data-driven, supportive and inclusive communication. Friends offering strangers time to talk if they’re lonely, peers volunteering with the elderly, shout-outs to companies and entrepreneurs dedicating their resources.
Some of the most heartwarming outpourings of the internet have been the willingness of others to share their offerings. What would ordinarily come with a steep price tag, is suddenly available as a gift. It’s like Burning Man’s gifting economy moved online. “The web’s mental immune system has kicked into gear amidst the outbreak. Rather than wallowing in captivity, we’ve developed digital antibodies that are evolving to fight the solitude”. We’ve developed digital congregations to compensate for the loss of physical ones. One-off livestreams have turned into online music festivals, self-help conferences, remote classes and coordinated mindfulness retreats. Despite being physically separated, we’ve never been closer. Investors are offering free pitch feedback, performing arts centers are screening live plays, and pastors and rabbis have moved online. And yes, Burning Man, finally, has gone digital.
Perhaps we can use our time with our devices to rethink the kind of communities we can create through them. This is a different life on the screen from disappearing into a video game or polishing one’s avatar. This is cracked open humanity, leveraging tools for the broader good premised on generosity and empathy. This is looking within and asking: “what can I authentically offer? What do people need?” When the infection waves pass, I hope this swell of creativity and in-the-moment togetherness stays strong. The internet is just a tool that reveals the fabric of humanity, and for the first time in a while, I’m proud of the way people are showing up for each other, rather than showing off.
Value of Truth and Expertise
Social media as a public square is a place for discourse and commiseration. But it’s also the place for gossip and instant accusations and judgment. Click baiting, sensationalist headlines have been emblematic of the last decade. And they’ve become even more present during the Covid episode, propelled by a system built to attract eyeballs that inadvertently becomes a race to the bottom. For years, it has incentivized controversy, outrage, and half-baked contrarianism, because this is entertainment at its worst.
And America, in all its glory and triumph, has become the zenith of it all. For the past several years, America has become a fundamentally unserious country. This is the luxury afforded us by peace, affluence and the convergence of consumer technologies. We were absolved of the necessity to weigh our existentialism through real threats of nuclear war, oil shortages, high unemployment, skyrocketing interest rates. We even posted a reality TV star to the presidency; whose defining tribute is a populist attack on the expertise that makes government relevant. But when our health and livelihoods are at stake, we are forced to accept that expertise matters. Perhaps we will witness a return of Americans to a new seriousness, or perhaps resign to the idea that government is a matter for serious people. The colossal failure of the Trump administration both to keep Americans healthy and to slow the pandemic-driven implosion of the economy might shock the public enough back to insisting on something from government other than emotional satisfaction
And as people are demanding unambiguous data, seeking clear information from science-based experts, it’s interesting to watch who the world is gravitating to; who emerges as leaders and which leaders lose the trust of their people. Bill Gates, who presciently predicted this outbreak in a 2016 TED Talk, has been elevated as a true world leader. A trusted (and importantly, relatively apolitical figure), who uses science and raw data to support his arguments. Similarly, epidemiologists and medical clinicians are experiencing a brand-new reach.
Now on social media, administrators are starting (though somewhat inconsistently and half-heartedly) to punish people who have internalized the dopamine-hit incentives. Recognizing the spread of misinformation, Chinese tech giants, already well-versed in censorship, put their tools to good use to prevent the spread of such lies. The creators of WeChat have integrated a fact-checking platform to dispel harmful misconceptions. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, are also actively working to ensure that only correct sources get amplified. Content from ‘reputable’ accounts is given priority, while amateur claims are being scrutinized and factchecked. Twitter is voraciously erasing quack cure tweets from former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani and Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro, and Facebook taking down two videos by Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro that disputed the need for social distancing. WhatsApp has restricted users' ability to forward posts, a blanket measure meant to “flatten the curve” of disinformation's spread. But it's still a game of whack-a-mole. Banning the most offensive might be a straightforward call, but many of the less egregiously bad tweets—tweets that do not appear to violate any of the platform’s rules but nonetheless sow unnecessary fear or cause confusion regarding matters of life and death—come from people who are merely trying to be “good at Twitter.” Social media was always designed to give us what we want, not what we need. But the problem is too systemic to be reversed overnight; a bad tweet, morally speaking, is often a good tweet, judging strictly by the numbers. And this is why we needed a shift.
The World Needed a Shift
As they say, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall”. There will be much financial and economic pain along the road to a recovery, but something had to awaken us from “headlong rush towards the perdition of over-indebtedness, overconsumption, overpriced assets and general overindulgence”.
There are, to a certain degree, parallels that can be drawn between the current COVID-19 pandemic and some of the other contemporary crises our world is facing. All require a global-to-local response and long-term thinking; all need to be guided by science and need to protect the most vulnerable among us; and all require the political will to make fundamental changes when faced with existential risks. In this sense, the 2020 coronavirus pandemic may lead to a deeper understanding of the ties that bind us all on a global scale and could help us get to grips with the largest public health threat of the century, the climate crisis.
Coronavirus is upending everything from aviation to retail — and it's also having a big impact on the environment. A drop in air pollution was first observed by NASA in China’s Hubei province, where the coronavirus outbreak began in December. Marshall Burke, a researcher at Stanford University, calculated the improvements in air quality recorded in China may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 years old and 73,000 adults over 70. Even more conservative estimates would put the number of lives saved at roughly 20 times the number of deaths from the virus directly. Though while “it is clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health, the calculation is a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo.” Nothing should go back to normal; normal wasn't working.
“Nature is sending us a message with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing climate crisis”, said the UN’s environment chief, Inger Andersen. Andersen claimed humanity was placing too many pressures on the natural world with damaging consequences, and warned that failing to take care of the planet meant not taking care of ourselves. To prevent further outbreaks, the experts said, both global heating and the destruction of the natural world for farming, mining and housing have to end, as both drive wildlife into contact with people. An end to live animal markets – which they called an “ideal mixing bowl” for disease – and the illegal global animal trade.
The scale of the coronavirus crisis calls to mind 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis—events that reshaped society in lasting ways, from how we travel and buy homes, to the level of security and surveillance we’re accustomed to, and even common vernacular. But this cocktail of constraints and boredom is a potent trigger for innovation. “Constraints are, in a way, a reverse Occam’s Razor—a force that removes the most obvious and mundane solutions from the table. With constraints, we’re forced to recalibrate and search for ways to solve problems that already have simple solutions”. Crisis moments present opportunity: more sophisticated and flexible use of technology, less polarization, a revived appreciation for the outdoors and life’s other simple pleasures.
The 21st century has been firmly dedicated to the “self”. Self-reliance, self-help, self-growth and self-independence. But this virus is reminding us that we are all connected, we need others and we need social support. It's the quality of your relationships that determines the quality of your life, they say. It is reminding us that the false borders that we have put up have little value as this virus does not need a passport. It is reminding us of how precious our health is and how we have moved to neglect it through eating nutrient poor manufactured food and drinking water that is contaminated with chemicals upon chemicals. If we don’t look after our health, we will, in fact, be sick. Disease knows no xenophobia, and suffering knows no borders. We are being stress tested, and if we pay attention there’s a huge opportunity to learn about ourselves. We're shedding layers from our past that don't serve us anymore. As we become still, whatever stillness means to you, we will be given ideas and messages about how we are to come out of this, what our role will be.
As Eric Davis says, “this is the moment when baseline reality dissolves and no new reality has emerged and it’s pixelating weight”. As Shots of Awe host, Jason Silva claims, “it’s like someone dosed our drink with acid and didn’t tell us, and we’re collectively realizing the only way out is through. Once we contend and metabolize the panic and converge our brilliance and creativity, we realize from an ego death can come renewal, transformation, reinvention. This is our chance to be the phoenix that rises from the ashes.
We’ve been heading towards mad max and now we have the opportunity to head towards star trek”. In the rush to return to normal, we must use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to. We took life for granted. It was heavy, and toxic. And while this crisis will pass like every other, we must not forget it, we must come out wiser than we went in. This can either be an end or a new beginning. This can be a time of reflection and understanding, where we learn from our mistakes, or it can be the start of a cycle which will continue until we finally learn the lesson we are meant to. Perhaps Corona is the great corrector we all needed.