Why after 10 months we are still in the middle of a pandemic
21 days to flatten the curve.
Stay home, save lives.
Wear a mask, or billions of people will die.
It’s the new normal.
When in March 2020 California government introduced the first shelter-in-place order, no one could imagine we would not get our usual lives back till the end of the year. Even now, as the vaccine is around the corner, we cannot be sure the state of things would become normal. During these ten months, the pandemic went through its ups and downs but never gave up. In my county, we’ve worn masks, kept social distancing, left home only when necessary. Still, the number of cases has grown so much that on December 7, a new stay-at-home order went into effect.
Why did we fail?
The answer is, anti-covid measures can only work if everyone takes them, and it has never been the case. Moreover, it is impossible. Following these rules is against human nature, and there is only so much one can do against their natural inclinations.
In this article, I will highlight which traits make people resent anti-covid measures.
Let’s start by looking at what anti-covid measures are. By now, most likely, you know them by heart. If not, here is a CDC refresher:
- Wear a mask
- Wash your hands
- Keep distancing
- Cover your cough
An enforced stay-at-home order also requires one not to leave home unless it is essential, and if you own a small business, chances are you have to close it.
Most of these policies do not protect you. They assume you are already sick and do not know it; their goal is to protect other people from you. You wear a mask, cover your coughs, close your business, avoid your friends, and stay home for someone else. The only thing you do for yourself is washing your hands.
Egotists and altruists
For some of us, following this guidance comes naturally. They see nothing terrible in staying at home for months, working, watching Netflix, and occasionally taking a stroll to the nearest drugstore with their mask on. They are lucky enough to have a lockdown-compliant personality.
Others are so terrified of the virus that they take anti-covid measures even when it is unnecessary. My grandmother hadn’t left her home for half a year. When she finally went out, she experienced panic attacks, which locked her in her self-imposed prison again. A friend of mine, a healthy woman in her thirties, avoided public places even in those two weeks when most of the restrictions were loose. Both feared for their lives.
Such people do not sacrifice anything. Staying at home and following the guidance is their choice; they act according to their own motives. In a sense, they are egotists.
For others, though, complying with anti-covid measures requires a personal sacrifice.
A personal sacrifice? What are you talking about? The pandemic might kill billions. What do your relationships, habits, business matter compared to lives?
Any pro-measure enthusiast.
This is a valid argument. No one wants to be a murderer. It does not mean, though, that there is no sacrifice.
Self-sacrifice: a sacrifice of oneself or one’s interest for others or for a cause or ideal.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Self-sacrifice. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.
The situation when you give up your interests and habits for the greater good fits this category perfectly. It is a single act, though. If you are required to give up something every day, your behavior is called altruism. To successfully fight the pandemic, we need everyone to become an altruist.
Altruism: behavior by an animal that is not beneficial to or may be harmful to itself but that benefits others of its species.
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Altruism. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary.
To successfully fight the pandemic, everyone needs to be an altruist.
People are naturally altruistic, but it depends
Since Herbert Spencer, scientists have considered selfishness a primary trait of Homo Sapiens. To survive and spread its genes, an organism has to put its interests first. It has to care more about itself and its children than about the other carriers of the genes. It is the survival of the fittest, isn’t it?
However, modern studies show that altruism is also natural for Homo Sapiens. We have been sacrificing ourselves for centuries. Men have been dying at war; women have been yielding everything they got to feed their children. Our selfish wish to save the progeny may explain these actions. But what about odder behaviors, like Chinese mothers who killed their daughters in response to China’s one-child policy, or the so-called honor killings in the Middle East?
People can sacrifice their progeny to increase the chances of survival of their group, says David M. Allen, a professor of Psychiatry and the former director of Psychiatric Residency Training at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis.
If a group such as a family, a herd, or a tribe has many individuals who share the adaptation, then the propagation of that gene becomes far more likely. The survival of a genetic adaptation is dependent on the size of the number of individuals who share the genes, not just on the presence or absence of the gene in a single individual. If the individual organism’s sacrifice of itself or its offspring helps a whole group to survive, the genes that predispose it to this behavior are selected for over time.
Allen, D. M., M.D. (2011). Self-Sacrifice: For the Good of the Kin. Retrieved December 09, 2020, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/matter-personality/201108/self-sacrifice-the-good-the-kin
In other words, an individual might be interested in protecting the genes of the group as their own. This is the nature of altruism in Homo Sapiens: we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for our kin.
The kin may be or may be not bound by blood, but it is still a group of people who are meaningful for the individual. And we know the maximum number of its members: 150, Dunbar’s number, the approximate size of the tribe.
It is not the whole species. It is not millions of people who may die of covid.
In terms of the pandemic, it means the following. If the virus kills a member of your social network, the altruism in you overcomes your selfishness, and you become a pro-measure enthusiast. If your social network includes medical staff who will exhaust themselves if the patients swarm the hospital, it also motivates you to take the measures seriously.
On the other hand, if none of your personal connections suffers from the pandemic, the matter remains abstract for you; you may understand the problem, but it does not make you willing to yield anything. I have many friends who caught COVID; my husband’s entire family had it, and all recovered, including his 94-year-old grandmother, so it is hard for me to worry about the illness.
It all comes down to your experience and that of your 150 connections. “Stay home, save lives” cannot work because you do not know the people whose lives you are supposed to be saving. And you will not even know if your actions have any impact.
This is precisely why the current anti-covid measures work so poorly: many people do not have the motivation to consent because they do not feel personally connected to the problem, and their altruistic behavior is not evoked.
“Stay home, save lives” cannot work because you do not know the people whose lives you are supposed to be saving.
The worst consequence of the pandemic is the schism in society. I hope my article will help to minimize the drama. It is not about who is right or who is wrong; it is not about the selfish and the virtuous. We take the side according to our nature and social circumstances. The better we understand this, the less stressful the whole situation will become. The less stress, the easier it is to fight the real enemy: the virus.