Mal Fletcher
COVID-19 Emergency: An Opportunity

“The life unexamined is not worth living,” said Socrates.

The effects of COVID-19, or future variants thereof, are not be treated lightly.

The virus is set to impact many lives and must be fought and overcome. However, paralysing panic will not generate the solutions we need.

Sometimes, in the face of great challenges, we lose our individual and collective capacity for perspective. We start to see relatively trivial aspects of the problem as huge and very important things as insignificant.

In the face of this particular virus, rushing to stock up on toilet roll achieves little - apart, perhaps, from making us feel like we’re doing something.

A behavioural scientist suggested this week that we buy toilet rolls because they come in large packages, which are prominently displayed in supermarkets. Buying them, he said, makes us feel that we’re purchasing something at least mildly important to our family’s health.

Before we examine what, if anything, we might take from the current health threat, let’s establish some basic facts, as we know them.

COVID-19 is one strain of a family of viruses described as “corona viruses”. A percentage of common colds also involve a form of corona virus, though in this form it is nowhere near as potentially dangerous to us.

The virus likely emerged in the animal kingdom. Some have speculated that it might have originated among bats, which have unique immune systems. Whatever the origin, the virus spread from animal to animal before it eventually found its first human host.

Rapid urbanisation - particularly but not exclusively in developing regions such as China - means that human beings increasingly encroach on animal habitats. Animals and humans are forced into closer proximity than they were even a few decades ago.

In some regions, relatively exotic animals are increasingly “mined” for their parts, which are thought to carry special powers to promote well-being but may carry something less helpful.

Meanwhile, globalisation and particularly travel almost guarantee that, once it finds a home among humans, any robust viral strain will find its way beyond local and national lines.

Some epidemiologists have predicted that the spread of COVID-19 may peak in a few weeks, at around Easter. It may then re-emerge later in the year, perhaps at around November, to become a part of our regular “menu” of health threats.

For the vast majority of people who contract this virus, their illness, while unpleasant, will not result in death. Terminal cases seem to occur mainly among people in their 60s and older, with increasing impacts in more senior years.

Right now, across entire populations, the rates of infection are relatively small. However, they are growing, in some cases rapidly. There’s no room for complacency. 

If it is not contained and eventually cured, the virus may mutate further, making it harder to track and destroy - and potentially more dangerous to children and young people.

The emergence of COVIN-19 was a wild-card event, in that the specific strain of the virus might be considered low in probability, but high in impact.

It might have taken one of many thousands of forms, any of which might have made it more or less dangerous to human beings.

This is important to remember, especially in light of attempts by some people to read political messages into COVID-19’s emergence.

Various governments may be more or less prepared to deal with viral outbreaks, but no administration can guarantee its citizenry complete immunity from wild-card diseases.

At the time of writing, entire regions in Italy are effectively cut off from the outside world as governments attempt to contain the virus.

Meanwhile, even in relatively “quiet zones” for the disease, celebrities and even government heads and ministers have tested positive and are heading into self-isolation.

The British government, like others around the world, has advised people to reduce their contact with others. In line with this, many people have chosen to stay at home to work.

Hand-shaking has become far less common; hand-washing far more so.

In various parts of the world, sporting events and concerts are postponed and some churches, having closed their doors, are offering people services via the internet. All of this is sensible.

So, what are we as individuals and families to make of the situation going forward?

It has been said that hope is not a strategy when we face a problem. That’s true, but hope at least puts us in the frame of mind to develop a strategy.

If fear is our default collective emotional response to a threat like COVID-19, paralysis sets in. We rob ourselves of the energy and determination needed for innovation and solution-finding.

This is true not only for people who work in laboratories, pursuing a cure; it is true for the rest of us, as we make choices for our families and our work.

Instead of merely retreating into fatalism, this is an opportunity to redeem our time.

This disease is no blessing - far from it - and we must be vigilant and show compassion to those who are directly affected by it. That said, the current emergency might afford us the chance to re-evaluate some things.

Modern life being what it is, we have precious few opportunities for reflection.

For those of us who have chosen, or been instructed, to work from home, digital technology has much to offer in terms of virtual conferencing and the like.

Businesses and other organisations will suffer much less disruption than they would have done two decades ago, thanks to digitisation. And many workers will experience much less by way of wage losses, because they can essentially work anywhere, at least for a time.

That said, unless we discipline it well, our engagement with digital gadgets also helps to reduce our mental downtime. The brain needs time to reflect on what we experience and discover. Without this downtime, the brain cannot build new information into long-term memory.

In normal life, the internet, for all its many advantages, is also an ecosystem for distraction.

Multi-screening is all the rage. Yet, Stanford University has found that while it presents us with more information, it reduces our ability to decide which data is relevant to the question at hand.

Constant use of social media reveals how many interesting individuals we could know but don’t. This leaves many of us with uncomfortable feeling that we’re somehow falling short.

These effects are not uniquely internet-related. The same outcomes can be seen when we expose ourselves to too many stimuli in any form - online or offline.

Facing an abundance of information and contacts, in real-time and in the cybersphere, we curiously still find ourselves experiencing FOMO, the infamous fear of missing out. It’s a weird but very real form of anxiety.

Meanwhile, our general rush to pursue financial security and often idealised lifestyle goals can lead us to “desacrilise” life. We lose our sense of being “set apart”, which is the true meaning of “sacred”.

I’ve been asked several times over the past few years, on programmes like BBC Breakfast, whether we should allow all-hours shopping across the Christmas period.

The fact is that setting aside certain days for reflection helps not only individuals but society as a whole. It allows us to assimilate everything that's going on in our individual lives, our relationships and our wider world.

Psychologists have found that our thinking becomes even shallower if we're constantly switched on and rushing about. There are clear signs that stress in the workplace is increasing today, partly because people can’t switch off out of hours.

Hence the moves by some of Europe's largest companies to switch off individual work-based email accounts when their people leave the office each day. Work-related stress is costing companies big money through lost productivity.

Yet the true cost of over-stretched lives, in terms of emotions, mental health, families and friendships, will never be reflected in mere monetary metrics.

COVID-19 is most definitely not our friend. Yet neither is paralysing panic.

Moreover, we can choose to see a degree of self-isolation as an opportunity to pull back from constant over-stimulation and stress.

Hopefully, a cure for COVID-19 will soon be found and it will not have time to mutant further. In the meantime, let’s ensure that our precious lives do not pass by unexamined.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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