Pandemic Virtues: The Importance of Humanity in the Grip of Coronavirus
These days everybody is an amateur epidemiologist. Monday morning water cooler (or should I say Slack) chat is as likely to be about coronavirus reproductive rates as it is about the big game or the most recent political debate. I am not sure this helps the average person. I have a doctorate in the biology of infectious disease and taught courses on epidemiology at University of Oxford, and even I have to acknowledge difficulty keeping up with breaking news of the very dynamic situation. The next two months will be critical in determining exactly how many persons will suffer and die from coronavirus. Are we looking at an epidemic that is two or ten times the impact of flu season?
Right now, it is likely that a large fraction of the population will be infected with the virus over the next few months. But no one lives their life according to probability distributions. We experience life as a series of discrete events and react much more strongly to possible bad outcomes over good outcomes. Researchers call this hard-wired capacity for avoidance of low-probability, high-impact events ‘negativity bias’. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Being eaten by a predator only happens once.
And I would wager the very natural phenomenon of negativity bias is driving much of the current social and economic reaction to coronavirus. A glance at social media or the news instantly reveals that many people are near hysteria already, despite the small probabilities involved globally. Millions of people around the world from Los Angeles to Tehran are just now coming to terms with the fact that their lives will also be touched by coronavirus. Hope often turns to magical thinking. When did they say a cure would be available? The sad fact is that you cannot order up these miraculous technologies like dessert from your favorite restaurant on DoorDash.
To navigate our daily lives despite the threat of infection, we must take advantage of humanity’s built-in techniques for dealing with collective threats. We must set aside detrimental feelings of panic, despair or selfishness and actively cultivate habits that provide the basis for practical and positive action. These are what I call the pandemic virtues:
Citizens must trust in their institutions, while nevertheless expecting them to deliver results. According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, 47 percent of the general population (as opposed to the informed populations) distrusts the government and the media. The lack of trust in institutions and the media is even more acute in the U.S. where trust in the government cleaves along party lines. Now is not the time to politicize public health officials, second guess communications or ignore warnings from doctors and scientists. Now is not the time to go your way. Spreading misinformation or contradicting guidance from your local health authority simply makes the job harder while putting your neighbors at risk. News outlets must actively resist the temptation to report on each new case as if it is an emergency. As the philosopher Onora O’Neill notes, “Active citizens improve institutions as they improve the conditions for trusting.” We all have an obligation in moments of crisis to hold institutions to account while encouraging our neighbors to actively participate in them in good faith, promoting facts, reason and deliberation over hysteria and political gain.
You might not believe it, but human beings are capable of the most amazing feats of willpower. Self-control and self-regulation enable reasoning, problem solving, planning, and symbolic language. When we decide not to act on an impulse, we literally override hundreds of millions of years of hardwired evolution. But in crisis scenarios, it can be difficult to exercise this distinctive human capacity. On one level, we must do small things like remembering not to touch our faces or to wash our hands after riding public transportation, so as to avoid coming into contact with or spreading disease. Just as importantly, we must temper the tendency to imagine worst-case scenarios.
Hoarding could be just as dangerous as the coronavirus itself. Recent estimates by the WHO put us woefully short of critical medical supplies. Face masks — which are all but useless for uninfected people living their daily lives — are critical for doctors and nurses who are in close contact with the sick for hours at a time. If too many people who do not need face masks buy them out of fear, our medical system could be put at risk. Similarly, the price of hand sanitizers has spiked, putting this product out of reach of many people. In the months ahead, disruption of supply chains for basic commodities will put everyone at risk.
Generosity is the habit of giving without an expectation of return. This virtue will become increasingly important as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies. Not everyone has the same risk for developing severe disease. Adults over 70 years of age have a much higher risk of fatal infection — probably 10–20 times higher — than younger adults. The vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 will experience mild symptoms, no worse than a cold or a mild flu.
Generosity applies as well to our use of health care. As hospitals and doctors come under greater strain, those patients with mild symptoms should choose self-quarantine at home, rather than taking up valuable medical resources. Similarly, during a public health crisis such as this, people should consider delaying non-critical medical care so as to reduce strain on the medical system.
The reality is that the coronavirus isn’t going away. There is no cure, nor will there be a vaccine for many, many months. Yes, scientists, doctors and public health officials are working furiously to find a solution, but for the time being, our collective health depends on our behavior. There simply is no magical solution — no silver bullet — to solve coronavirus. But perhaps we can use this as an opportunity to save lives by focusing on our natural human virtues like trust, willpower, and generosity.
Andrew Serazin D.Phil. is the President of the Templeton World Charity Foundation.