One Way to Deal with the Pandemic: Believing That It’s Nothing New
The unfamiliar makes us uneasy, so some pretend it’s like previous experience.
I think we all like — or are at least comfortably reassured by — the familiar. In Patrick O’Brian’s (excellent) series of British naval novels in the Napoleonic era, Stephen Maturin quotes a Catalan benediction on parting: “May no new thing arise.”
New things make us uneasy because they are unfamiliar, so we don’t know what to expect nor how best to respond. I just moved into a new apartment, and I like it better as it becomes more familiar. I become accustomed (for example) to where light switches are (so I find them with muscle memory rather than conscious thought) and to how hot the stove burners get on a given setting (hotter than my previous stove).
We tend to dislike novel situations because we cannot draw upon previous experience. One coping strategy is denial — the most primitive psychological defense. We use that by adopting the view that the situation is not novel but is much the same as before. Reality, however, has a way of brutally correcting delusions, and those who are trying to make the pandemic fit their previous experience are in for a shock.
We have not experienced anything like this. Those who survived the last great deadly pandemic, the influenza pandemic of 1918–1919, are long since gone. For those alive today, the coronavirus pandemic is unlike anything in their previous experience, so acting on lessons learned from experience can lead to disaster. President Trump’s wish that churches on Easter Sunday will be packed with their congregations will, if fulfilled, kill many people — and also totally overwhelm the inadequate and fragile and underfunded and disorganized US healthcare “system.” (How did anyone ever think it was the “best in the world”?)
The same applies to climate change: we have entered an era where previous experience is no longer a guide, and where the change in climate causes drastic changes in weather patterns. It’s all new and mostly bad. And again many use denial to avoid the shock of dealing with the unfamiliar.
I fear what we’ll see starting around the end of April. Many in the US — President Trump and the Republican party in particular — have no idea what’s coming (and for many, that’s a deliberate choice: to ignore experts and demean science, finding security in the belief that tomorrow will be pretty much like today). They are in for a rude awakening. Their inaction and passivity have already set the stage for many deaths.