Is the pandemic the wake-up call society needs?
“Over 1.5 billion people globally under house arrest due to virus”
“The curve is not flattening and deaths are skyrocketing despite heavy measures”
“Coronavirus will change the world forever”
We have all been bombarded with information and headlines about the dangers of the coronavirus and have experienced the consequences of the historic moment the world is going through. But have we recognized the underlying issues that are magnifying this crisis? More importantly, are we doing anything about it?
When it comes to this pandemic, there are three topics that have little to do with the actual virus that I consider crucial: misinformation; lack of objectivity; and the potential toxic combination of the two.
Let me share with you.
1. The dual outbreak: a misinformation pandemic
The COVID 19 pandemic has had two different outbreaks:
1. The first and obvious one is of a biological nature: the virus itself. It has spread around faster than any government has been able to contain it and contagion has gone global.
2. The second one is rather of a social nature: misinformation. In the last four weeks I have read all sort of articles including new “cold war” theories, heard false statements about medicines and seen pictures of people covered in eucalyptus to avoid contagion.
This misinformation has had another severely destructive effect: mistrust, and worse of all, one that is somehow justified. World leaders have failed to jointly share consistent information and guidelines. Some governments continue to undermine the crisis and have refused to take measures to protect their people.
I am not the first one to take note of this and call upon companies, governments, media and public figures to be responsible and ensure the information they put out to the public is fact based rather than opinion based, particularly since lives depend on it. But it is also our responsibility as individuals in a collective and global society to ensure that the post we share, the WhatsApp message we forward and the article we send comes from a reliable and identifiable source, based on facts and not on random opinions that are not backed up by the necessary research.
2. The cognitive bias: contagious lack of objectivity
Humans tend to create a self-built reality based on perception which usually deviates from the objective input of a situation. This leads to people taking positions and decisions based on an inaccurate judgement.
In addition, our perception is highly influenced by emotions. As lockdowns are implemented in many countries and uncertainty rises, feelings such as anxiety, fear and loneliness become more common.
I have encountered two main tendencies:
1. One where people deny the fact that this is a major global crisis with important implications
2. A second where people have a more fatalistic approach assuring that life will never be as good as it used to be and that the crisis to follow will be impossible to surpass.
The problem with these tendencies is not only the lack of touch with the objective reality of what is going on, but that both are, as the virus, contagious. We spread our anxiety, fear or carelessness when we speak and exchange with others. The danger is that people move away from facts and objective information.
As William Arthur Ward said: the pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails. We must remain mindful of the psychological and emotional burden of this pandemic, but we can support a common effort by reminding the people we interact with of the facts and help them rebuild a more objective perception of both the present and the future, helping us all to better adjust our sails.
3. The double trouble: when misinformation meets subjectivity
Finally, the combination of the previous two points can become the biggest danger of them all. If we combine the misinformation and mistrust that have been boiling for the last few months (not to say years) and add a lack of objectivity when it comes to our assessment and expectations of the current and future situation, it can create a perfect storm that could result in increased social restlessness and even violence around the world. Therefore, sticking to facts and objectivity will be more crucial than ever.
The most interesting aspect is that these three issues are not COVID 19 pandemic specific. Misinformation and the lack of objectivity are not new social and human issues, they have existed since we started interacting in an organized society set-up and we have been nourishing them for generations. The speed at which information travels in today’s world magnifies their effect. This pandemic is a clear example of the impact these underlying social issues have and how they can intensify a situation that is already incredibly challenging.
The current crisis could very well represent the wake-up call that the world needed. It is our responsibility as individuals, particularly those in privileged positions with good health, job certainty and a supportive government, to not only be good citizens in these times of uncertainty, but to question the way we acquire and share information, the way we build our perceptions and how we influence outcomes beyond this pandemic. By doing this, and demanding that our governments, media and institutions do so as well, we can seize the challenge that this historic moment brings and pave the way for a better future.
If not now, when?
If not us, who?