“Human societies are pretty feeble and ugly”, shows new study by 125-nm-in-diameter virus.
I find it embarrassing that the most powerful mirror revealing the modern world for what it is is the one created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis caused by the novel coronavirus forced the world into a “reap what you sow” scenario and in my opinion, the harvest is anything but bountiful.
Sure, the “this too shall pass” adage remains valid even when we face something as severe as a pandemic, but I am more concerned with why this happened at this level in the first place and how it can be prevented or handled better the next time. Because there will be a next time.
In just a few months, more than 3 million people have tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 infection, more than 200,000 have died from complications triggered by the virus, sometimes without even having basic access to healthcare, and approximately 900,000 recovered, with no definite evidence to date that they cannot contract the virus again.
For anyone not entertaining an “Oh well, we’re all going to die someday” life philosophy when it comes to preventable illness and death, this is bad. It becomes outrageous though when many of the reasons why this happened are directly linked to a failure of all administrative structures to use the available scientific data and professional protocols to help communities fare this global problem better. And then come helplessness and desperation when you realize that whether this is going to last well over a reasonable amount of time [considering the basic, out of our control data], whether it will get worse and whether this can happen again in the future in a similar situation rests with the communities’ ability and willingness to fulfill what is needed of them in order to register a minimal loss of human lives and manageable economic damage. Considering what I have seen so far, this is scary. The aware and responsible at the mercy of the ignorant and reckless.
I won’t sugar-coat it. I have no interest in being the psychologist who only tells you comforting, popular things to maintain a “positive feel” regarding her online presence. Some things are less than pretty and need to be faced with maturity if changing them is of any interest to any of the parties affected by them. I want to challenge ineffective thinking patterns and decision-making processes. I would like people to find reasons and determination to change those elements in themselves and in the societies they live in. That is not a comfortable process. Please read some other blog if this bothers you.
Back to the mirror showing us just how distorted our reactions are in a time of crisis, I will say that I am rather worried about what comes next, once the governments will relax restrictions in areas still at risk of becoming COVID-19 red zones if the people won’t continue to practice, out of their own volition, the elements of prevention imposed to most of us by law in the last months.
There is plenty of evidence in how things have unfolded so far to believe that many – I am inclined to say most – won’t truly obey the medical recommendations regarding social distancing, use of face masks, or even gloves, and restriction of travel to that which is essential.
Of course, we need to learn to live our lives as close to what we know as normal, in the given context, but maintaining balance will require intentional effort, and here is where I think the West may not respond as well as the Eastern countries did in this and past pandemics. Conspiracy theories aside, numbers of those infected or dead from COVID-19 in Europe and the U.S.A. support this perspective. There are differences in how we look at ourselves, each other, and the world, and those differences may just direct the outcome of it all.
I believe that many have paid and will continue to pay the price of ill-directed social values, not just the one related to medical or economic shortcomings.
If nothing will change at a personal level for many of our fellow human beings, nothing will change socially, and it will become increasingly difficult for scientists, medical staff, lawmakers, and regular responsible people to keep things at a safe level in our communities, for a prolonged period of time.
Considering the nature of the core issues revealed by the crisis context, I am convinced that most of those changes could stem from increased activation and optimization of Critical Thinking Skills and Assertive Attitudes. [I know, this comes as a no surprise to you, if you’re already familiar with my blog].
Here is a selective list of issues I have noticed in the past months – individual, social, and administrative, whose roots are closely linked to lack of critical thinking skills or passive or aggressive attitudes.
- Ignorance [administration level]. Governments do not prioritize their relationships with scientists. This is why often they find out last about significant issues that could impact the communities they are responsible for. Sometimes they ignore their scientists, and at times, even worse, they oppress them to the point where they learn to keep silent. Governments are based on management skills, not knowledge. That showed.
- Ignorance [individual level]. The majority of people do not have basic knowledge regarding biology or medical issues. Yes, some have been covered in school, but when external rewards are linked to the assimilation of knowledge, the person loses track of that information’s link to their own existence. Most people learn to pass their exams or to be able to appear less ignorant to those around them, not to apply the things they’ve learned in their own lives. This is why at the beginning of this pandemic most populations had to be told not just to wash their hands to prevent infection, but how to do it properly. And here we talk about developed countries, not just about those areas with no access to running water or soap. The same goes for basic information about virus transmission. The novel coronavirus is not that special, in the sense that we actually stand a chance at reducing its transmission by practicing social distancing and proper hygiene of hands and face. Lack of understanding and/or knowledge in this area made the preventive measures come as a shock to most countries. Populations did not understand the significance of the measures and what difference they can make. So, in many cases, they almost took it personally.
- Faulty prioritization of values [individual]. People do not usually consider scientists and professionals who work in key sectors such as medical, agricultural, education, and basic industries valuable resources of their communities. Masses seem to prioritize low-significance activities and personal traits that do not present any value in what would constitute needed-to-survive standards. Youth aspirations provide an understanding of that: children want to become “Youtubers” and “stars” – not visual artists, not directors, not actors, not writers, not editors, etc. People want the latest smartphone that can contain thousands of useful apps but will only use it to provide proof of wealth and social status. Fewer and fewer young people recognize the value of those with real skills because we, as a society, kept rewarding low-value results. With our admiration, our money, our time.
- Faulty prioritization of values [administration]. Those in power forgot why they are there. Because generations before them forgot why they are there and only focused on money and the actual control of populations and their environments. This is why it is difficult for many administrations to make people-first decisions. It is why many have prioritized political or commercial gain and knowingly endangered the very populations whose interests and well-being they’ve been chosen to protect.
- Passive attitude [administration level]. Many local administrations did not take any measures and did not use their own information-gathering mechanisms to start proper management of the crisis, but they have all expected higher-level administrations to cue them instead. The information was there long before the official response started at the state level. Not many were those who dared to take steps not dictated by high-rank officials. Sure, they would have been limited in their options, but informing the public, raising awareness, and even raising alert levels would have been possible in most democratic countries. The same goes for individual hospitals.
- Passive attitudes [individual level]. Just like local administrations have waited for higher powers to cue them on the next steps and could not assess the available data themselves to serve the population, most individuals took no steps to protect themselves and others until they were told to do so by governments or other officials. The information was there. We knew about the situation in China long before states of emergency were activated in our own countries. I was talking about it with my friends in late January and canceled my non-essential appointments in late February as a caution measure, as well as limiting my shopping to non-crowded areas. Also, some of us made sure we had some surgical masks available, just in case Europe follows China in its course since the first cases were being reported. If we knew, others knew. Governments definitely knew months before the information got out in general media. But most people waited for instructions.
- Malevolence [administration level]. Some in power don’t care about your wellbeing. Some won’t even care if you die, as long as their interests are not harmed. Sociopaths exist in places of power. It’s as simple as that.
- Malevolence [individual level]. Some of the people in your town won’t care about your wellbeing. Some won’t even care if you die, as long as their interests are not harmed. Sociopaths exist in your neighborhood. This, as well, is as simple as that.
- Benevolence, and not much else [administration level]. Some local administrations wanted to do something, but lacked the know-how and/or the means to take relevant measures. It made no difference.
- Benevolence, and not much else [individual level]. Some individuals wanted to act and do good things in their communities but did not know what could be done or lacked the means to implement their intentions. It made no difference.
- Optimism, and not much else [administration level]. Some administrations hoped for great outcomes and thought things cannot get horrifically wrong in their area – it never happened before, after all. For some of them, the hope got validated because factors were favorable in that specific context – for example, residents lived rather isolated anyway, while for others, all hell broke loose soon after hoping for the better but forgetting to prepare for the worst.
- Optimism, and not much else [individual level]. Individuals hope. It is normal in many contexts, but many times useless unless doubled by relevant action. Some simply hoped they won’t get sick, or that their loved ones will be safe. For many of them, that was not enough, and tragedy hit.
- Manipulation. Ignorant masses can be easily manipulated. Frightened masses, even more so. A combination of the two is gold for any party interested in using a real threat to their own advantage. Treatments have been presented as relevant to the pandemic, products started being sold at shameless prices, and individuals got credit for things they did not achieve, simply because they’ve found a way to link their activity or face to something that made sense, even for a little while, to those affected.
- The wrong fight. I love it when people know and fight for their rights. Reasonable rights, that is. I am less enthusiastic when they forget the fact that their own rights do not override the rights of others. We’ve seen so many people demanding “Freedom” when advocating for the relaxation of isolation measures. They’ve got it wrong. Your right to have your hair cut or go to a restaurant does not trump someone else’s right to remain healthy and, you know, alive.
- Responsibility [professional level]. Whatever your profession, as long as you’ve entered a field and remained active in it, you are responsible for your actions in that field. Medical doctors who resigned because things got tough but who would gladly take payment on any other day from the same hospital, disobeyed that rule, in my opinion. Same for any other person whose job in normal conditions would be crucial to the wellbeing of the populations they chose to serve. You wouldn’t want all workers from your local police station to resign when there’s an attacker on the loose in your area, right? It happened with medical staff in several key hospitals in Europe when COVID-19 hit. Worse than resigning? Staying, but refusing to care for patients. That, too, happened.
- Responsibility [individual level]. Many people do not seem to understand that the well-being of their community is dependent on their actions as well. This is not a matter where you simply stay away from an issue and let it run its course – unless you want to self-isolate for a year or so. Here you need to show the community that you care, not only about yourself but about them as well. It’s really easy, too. Wear a mask, maintain distance, don’t visit vulnerable people unless you need to assist them. If you fail to do these minimal things in such a crucial moment, why would you expect the community to accept or value you? Yes, they could be nicer than you are, but it wouldn’t be a balanced community.
- Lack of vision [administration level]. This is a complex context, but I am definitely baffled about the lack of perspective many administrations displayed. Many measures made sense for a short time, but everyone seems to have been surprised by the fact that long-term actions must be considered. Yes, it became a trolley problem context – the community may have to decide to sacrifice the few [COVID-19 victims] in order to save the many [financial crisis victims], but long-term solutions should limit “the few”, just like it happened with all other medical issues. Maybe there is more to this bit of the story than the states share at this point. I have a hypothesis, but not enough data to consider it worthy of sharing just yet.
- Lack of vision [personal level]. Your life won’t change. Your life has changed. So many people seem to believe that there is going to be some sort of moment when the governments will say “The pandemic is over” and we will all return to the lives we had in February. We won’t. Even if we will be able to once again go to a restaurant with our friends, or to a concert, this segment of history already changed us. Many resist this awareness.
- Chasing the red dot. Masses that do not pay attention to the critical points of a matter can be easily distracted in considering trivial, unrelated subjects. They will lose sight of what is important. Just like cats chasing a laser light, people switching their interest as directed by third parties via fake or carefully doctored news will be manipulated into looking in the wrong direction. Bunnies get placed in hats when you do that. Ta-daa.
- Poor emotional management. There are people who were already struggling with anxiety and depression before the pandemic started, and many developed symptoms because of the restrictive measures imposed by it. They would require professional assistance to manage their situation as best as possible under these circumstances. And then there are those who simply overreact to things like children screaming in the sweets aisle when they cannot get candy number 87. Those individuals need to learn about proper emotional management and emotional maturity. That is not a psychiatric issue, that is a character issue and one needs to solve that one before entertaining the expectation of being treated as an adult in one’s community.
- Going with the flow. “Pandemics have happened before. Mass extinctions have happened before. Meh, whatcha gonna do?” – Those not doing a damn thing. The alive, but non-responsive by choice of philosophy. “Whatever happens, happens.” This is a time when action is needed and lack of it may actually kill many. Telling yourself it’s got nothing to do with you, that nature will, in the end, do what it will, is the exact thing that could make this thing worse. You could do something but choose not to. Senseless loss.
Obviously, there are many other issues revealed by the present context, but I chose the main ones that I believe have the most impact on the matter and which could be solved by activation and optimization of critical thinking and assertiveness.
In my opinion, this is the part that most education systems failed to properly convey and implement. Some did that willingly, there are many benefits to those in power when masses do not assess their actions critically and do not understand the power they themselves hold. Others thought they have covered those bits, but recent evidence shows we’re far from having large groups of people act in a reasonable, responsible way in extreme contexts.
We actually have/had it easy this time. Consider the plot of the movie “A Quiet Place” – where people could get killed by creatures simply because they’ve made a sound and that would trigger the monsters’ attention to them and maybe to their entire family. What if the things required of us would be of the more nuanced kind? Right now we need to wash our hands, wear a mask, and basically stay indoors. What if we would find ourselves in a context where we would have to be more careful in order to save ourselves and others? Would you trust those in your community to at least try?
13 Reasons Why Post-Pandemic Policies Should Prioritize Critical Thinking Skills and Assertive Attitudes
Here are some of the results I think we could get “the next time” if we start prioritizing the assimilation of Critical Thinking Skills and Assertive Attitudes.
- Intrinsically motivated pro-social actions. Assertive individuals recognize the value of their community and understand their role in the complex social mechanism. They would act before being asked to and would try to manage contexts as soon as they appear in their area, thus propagating the desired solutions faster. Applied to the present context, people would want to participate in the common efforts of their community to stop the pandemic.
- Knowledge-driven action. People who understand basic principles in an area of knowledge would be able to apply those principles to similar contexts, to retrieve relevant results. In the context of this pandemic, if people would have understood the basic transmission mechanisms of the flu virus, they would know what to do to at least try and limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, which displays similar traits.
- Social cohesion. People would act as a whole, considering everyone before taking any steps forward.
- Better options. Critical thinking allows people to create alternatives beyond those that are very obvious or handed to them by third parties. Communities would be able to work together and find the best options for their specific context.
- Reasonable empathy levels. In assertiveness-driven contexts, no one is considered “less than” others. In the COVID-19 crisis, we can clearly see how certain categories have been labeled as vulnerable and how many of those not labeled as such consider these groups expendable. We do not entertain, as a society, the attitude that we should all do everything in our power to save as many people as possible. Instead, we went for a “well, they were goners anyway” attitude. Maybe the next critical moment labels you as expendable… would you maintain that view?
- Better choice of those in administrations. We’d vote better. Because we’d know better what it is needed, we would know which skills are valuable and which traits would be useless in these key segments of social responsibility.
- Fewer antisocial intentions. Assertiveness means proper management of our aggressive traits, as well as a mental attitude in which people are seen as equally valuable and worthy.
- Reasonable optimism. We would know which hopes are going to contribute to our mental well-being and which will need proper actions to bring about the desired results. Also, we would understand which part of a context is within our control, and what parts can neither be controlled nor changed. There are negative things that will simply happen and it would be more useful for us to come to terms with that rather than deny their existence or potential impact. It is important to learn to manage less than positive contexts so that they will not overwhelm us.
- Tolerance to uncertainty. There are things that we simply do not or cannot know. That is part of our lives and we need to understand how to manage these elements at both cognitive and emotional levels so that they do not trigger reactions such as panic or the inability to act. For example, in this pandemic, we simply do not know when it is going to end. And we are going to have to find ways to go on with our lives in this new context – and find joy and happiness! – for as long as needed.
- Resistance to manipulation. Fake news will lose its power in front of audiences capable of critical thinking. The same will happen to most attempts of manipulation that would benefit certain actors involved in a crisis moment.
- Cognitive flexibility. If the environment changes, so should individuals. We need to be able to adapt to the best of our ability and even find new ways to thrive in the new environment. Endurance is also strength.
- Fighting the good fights. Mental organization is not rigidity. Just like social distancing is not oppression. Assertive people understand the difference between rights and responsibilities, what is acceptable in a social environment and what is not, and that being able to analyze things critically does not imply the loss of emotional response to significant experiences in our lives.
- Vision. We would learn to look beyond “now” while still being able to react to our present circumstances. We would be prepared for more contexts than those that we consider now. As a community, a whole. Right now we do not have a common understanding of how we would like our world to look like, we do not have common goals. Since we don’t know where we’re going as a group, we may be chaotic with many of our individual journeys because we do not understand how or even whether they fit together in any way. I am not saying this to discourage personal journeys, by all means, I support them, but many steps might be easier if we would have a better understanding of our extended tribe. Maybe we would be better at celebrating differences if we would see all elements as part of the larger group, with no possibility of simply leaving someone out.
I hesitated a lot to write a new article on the blog while the modern world was still going through some of its most critical moments. I did not understand where it was all going and I did not want my specific emotional and cognitive responses from the beginning of the crisis to determine a very narrow perspective on the issue. Obviously, I still do not know where it is all going, but now at least many things seem clearer. Among them, the most important element for me is the fact that we are going to have to live with this virus, as a society, for a relatively long time. Many of the options available to us right now suggest this perspective. I have a different approach now that I know this is not a two-month crisis. We each determine the elements that we need in order to make a decision or formulate a conclusion, even if a partial one. I needed this time to process things for myself. Maybe you needed less, or maybe you still need time. All versions are valid.
I am just happy that there are also many, many people who understand the significance of the moments that we are going through. It is them and their actions that make me confident in believing that we will prevail and will come out of this as a stronger global community. I also believe that in time, more people will join the tribe of assertive critical thinkers.
Be responsible. Stay safe!