The Changes A-coming

Covid-19 has reminded us, if we needed reminding, that people behave in unpredictable ways. We are not, it turns out, rational beings. Our leaders lead from the front, the back, not at all, or just feather their own nest first. People defy curfews; they cough on others, smear their saliva on lift buttons, and fight over toilet rolls. Others sacrifice themselves helping strangers, look out for neighbours they barely know, sing and perform to lift others’ spirits. This should give us pause before we start predicting what the world will look like after the virus.

A piece by Politico confirmed my bias that there is a tendency among those viewing the crisis unfold towards confirmation bias — nearly all the experts asked to contribute their thoughts on how the world will be changed effectively said what you think they would say: the author of a book called “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarisation” said that there would be a, er, decline in polarisation. The author of a book called “The Death of Expertise” said there would be a, um, return to seriousness and respect for expertise. The author of a book about how social infrastructure can help fight inequality said the virus would “force us to reconsider who we are and what we value” and “make substantial new investments in public goods-for health.”

I’m not mocking these writers, or the article itself. It’s natural enough to see in the virus the seeds of the change one is hoping for or has already predicted would happen. Such predictions rarely stand the test of time. We saw the same phenomenon after 9/11, the last great external shock to the West’s system. People talked then about leaving New York, about embracing a different, simpler life. They bought canoes, bulletproof vests, ammunition, parachutes. Analysts predicted a quite different future for us all. A N.R. Kleinfield wrote a decade on in the New York Times:

Paul Simon said he didn’t know if he could ever complete another album. A woman wrote on a remembrance site that she regretted that she had had children, that she had brought their innocence into a world no longer fathomable to her.

But there has been a chasm between expectations and reality. The prophecy of more attacks on the United States has not been the case, not yet at least. Bumbling attempts got close — involving underwear and a shoe and a 1993 Nissan Pathfinder — but the actuality has been that terrorist acts on American soil in the succeeding years have been, as always, largely homegrown.

So many things were expected to be different that have not been. Time passes, and passes some more. Exigencies of living hammer away impatiently. People — most of them, at least — began to become themselves. New York, which by its nature accommodates so much, was willing to absorb 9/11 and keep moving.

That day for many of us is as fresh as if it were yesterday, but the way we thought it would change us has grown stale. Yes, we have the security theatre of airport checks — though they too, might change emphasis once the viral dust has settled — but for most of us our lives didn’t change substantially. (Paul Simon has released six albums, six compilations and one boxed set since 9/11.)

It’s understandable we feel that momentous events have momentous, long-term impacts on our lives, but the reality is that the changes wrought are both less and more than what we anticipate, even by the boffins among us.  

Probably the best way to view the impact of Covid-19 is to view the impact of its predecessor. Not SARS or MERS, although they highlighted how those countries with a institutional and collective memory of a recent epidemic are best equipped mentally and logistically for a new one; but the Spanish ‘Flu of 1918-20, which affected much of the same territory as Covid has — namely the world.

Beds with patients in an emergency hospital in Camp Funston, Kansas, in the midst of the influenza epidemic. Date: circa 1918. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
With masks over their faces, members of the American Red Cross remove a victim of the Spanish Flu from a house at Etzel and Page Avenues, St. Louis, Missouri. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Firstly there are significant similarities between the two in the way they played out. As we have seen in Europe, Australia and the U.S., there’s a reluctance on the part of government to impose unpopular measures — most obviously to get people out of pubs, off beaches and indoors. The same was true in France in 1918, where local officials were reluctant to enforce measures such as closing theatres, cinemas, churches and markets “for fear of annoying the public.” Japan happily banned mass gatherings in its Korean colony, but didn’t even consider trying the same thing back home.

People are people. Officials don’t want to do unpopular things (except when they do not actually face the voter — Japan was by then a democracy of sorts.) And while during the pandemic itself people behaved much as we’re behaving — most of us with “collective resilience”, as Laura Spinney puts it in her excellent Pale Rider — that group identity eventually splinters, and “bad” behaviour emerges. She points to the 1919 Rio carnival, intended to mark the end of the crisis even while the flu was still claiming lives, where the partying took a dark twist: one historian, Sueann Caulfield, found that in the period after the epidemic, there was a surge in reported rapes in the city, temporarily outnumbering other types of crime. The point — beyond the horror of the crimes themselves — is that people behave in strange ways, and crises both fundamentally change their behaviour, but also amplify existing traits. There is no simple outcome.

So predicting is a dangerous game, or it would be if we were ever held to the predictions we make. And it is, of course, far too soon to even know how this crisis will unfold, how long it will take and how many of us it will take with it. So it’s probably unfair to ask others to predict the lasting impacts, at least at this point, and unfair to mock them for their confirmation bias. I would love a more civil society that takes electing its leaders seriously enough to realise they aren’t electing someone to entertain them as much as operate the levers of government. I would love to believe that the selflessness we’ve seen come out of the crisis thus far would linger after peace returns, that we will properly honour those in and serving the medical professions — from the cleaner to the surgeon. That we will realise it can’t go on like this, that we have to take better care of the planet, not move so selfishly through it and past each other, that Gaia is a complex being that weaves everything into her web, even unseen droplets that can pass between us, which we can use to kill each other if we do not take the utmost care.

But that would probably be asking too much. We have to assume that the crisis brings out both the best in us and the worst in us, and we need to stop virtue-signalling about helping old folk with their groceries or checking in on neighbours and just do it, sotto voce, both during the quarantine and after it. If you need a reason why, it’s because collective resilience is as selfish as looking after yourself alone; during crises we tend to perceive ourselves not as individuals but as members of a group, and hence (so the psychological theory goes) helping others in the group is a form of selfishness. Do it, but don’t pat yourself on the back and post something to Facebook about it. If you were really serious about it you would have been doing it long ago, and keep doing it long after.

So my predictions? I’ll jump off that cliff in a later post, but for now, it seems likely that we will both underestimate and overestimate the length and impact of this crisis. Those of us who think we’re well prepared for this, will find that it hits us in other ways. Those of us fearful for the future will probably find fresh reservoirs of strength. The only thing I can predict with any certainty is that it will start to get boring quickly, and while people are dying, others will be defying curfews and sabotaging efforts to stamp out the virus. At the same time, I believe there will be more quiet heroics that will go untold, more quiet domestic solidarity among families that once fought, and the rise of business ideas amidst the lockdown that will make millions for those who nurse them to life. I’ll hang my hat on those predictions, alongside my mask and hand sanitizer gel.