The Coronavirus captures the essence of true uncertainty and as a result, most approaches to mitigate the spread are naturally being made with a risk mindset.

Every day we are constantly expected to decide between the present and the future. For example, should we spend money on a nice vacation now, or save it for retirement? Pay a credit card bill now, or wait until next month? The emergence of the Coronavirus has seen governments around the world being forced to decide whether to enforce social distancing now or wait until later.

Research indicates that greater future uncertainty increases the preference for immediate gains (Ahlbrecht & Weber, 1997; Anderson & Stafford, 2009; Mischel & Grusec, 1967), whilst adding uncertainty to all possible outcomes removes the premium people put on immediate rewards, and delaying outcomes removes the premium people put on certain rewards (Keren & Roelofsma, 1995; Weber & Chapman, 2005). Therefore, the story for gains is fairly clear: people dislike delay, dislike uncertainty, and really dislike the combination of delay and uncertainty.

Let’s break that down:

Risk Mindset vs Uncertainty Mindset
Professor Vaughn Tan, from the UCL School of Management suggests that the risk mindset is an approach to the world that asks: “How can I calculate my actions so that I achieve the best possible outcome?”  However, using the risk mindset to see and interpret the world is only appropriate when you have full information about your actions and the outcomes those actions result in.

The risk mindset is an inappropriate way to see the world at this time—the world is now undeniably uncertain, not risky.  A different mindset is needed now, one that acknowledges the uncertainty of the situation instead of denying it.  But the risk mindset is so ingrained in how we think that it has infected how we think about nearly everything—even highly uncertain situations such as the Coronavirus, where we don’t know enough for the risk mindset to be appropriate.

In uncertain situations, the risk mindset promotes the illusion that inherently imprecise or unknown things can somehow be precisely calculated so that the optimal course of action can be determined. It promotes the illusion of fine-grained control over a situation where such control simply doesn’t exist.

In contrast, the uncertainty mindset is ultimately realist and pragmatic, but also imaginative. It can imagine what a future might be like given the reality of the present. Hence my advocacy to Tilt and pivot toward the future by concentrating on the present.

To everything (turn, turn, turn) there is a season (turn, turn, turn) and a time to every purpose under heaven” The 60s band, The Byrds popularised this verse from the bible and it acts as a helpful reminder that circumstances can be a time to panic, or to work on strengthening our mental flexibility.  Could our current time of uncertainty become the season to practise being present, since our busy lives have been put on pause?

We are currently living through upside-down, uncertain times.

Historically, communities that have been ravaged by disasters rarely descend into chaos and despondency. Rather, they become increasingly egalitarian and interdependent.

Consider the Second World War where there was an increase in social solidarity. Though English society was (and is) characterised by class distinctions, such conventions faded amidst the howl of the German Stuka. People who had never interacted before the war established warm relations, sharing resources while discussing their fears and aspirations. In my own English village there’s an air of collegiality and solidarity, and even if people are forced to stand two meters apart, everyone has a ‘covid-19’ story to share, desperate for connection and cathartic release.

What explains this link between calamity and solidarity?
Most of us organise our lives around limited formal purposes and siloed preoccupations.  As a result, as individuals, we lose the general sense of ‘mission’, or the feeling of a progressive flow in our life experience.

According to Charles Fritz, an American scientist pioneering disaster research, disasters create a “community of sufferers”; individuals unified by a single transcendent goal: survival. The struggle to both overcome the dangers of a disaster and re-stabilise social life provides a structure and purpose to human activity that is absent in daily life.

When an event or disease such as the Coronavirus becomes so encompassing that it involves most of the prevailing social system, so destructive that it disrupts the ongoing systems of survival, meaning, order, and motivation, communities and societies naturally develop therapies that quickly and effectively overcome the losses, traumas, and privations of disaster. 

Disasters are, of course, occasions for profound human misery. They produce death, destruction, and physical privation – experiences that elicit great personal pain and suffering. But the exclusive preoccupation with these physical effects and corresponding behavioural “problems” have led us to ignore some of the positive consequences of a disaster for the survivors, both as individuals and as members of groups, communities, and the larger society. Despite all the visions of hell that can be mustered in the popular and scientific imagination, disasters have always produced many beneficent effects on surviving personal and social systems.  Nations and communities typically demonstrate amazing toughness and resiliency in absorbing and coping with the dis integrative effects of disaster. And disaster-struck societies not only quickly rebound from disaster but often reconstruct and regenerate their social life with added increments of vitality and productivity.

Disasters are not only characterised by “death,” “destruction,” “disintegration,” and “disease,” they also provide conditions for “vitality, “reconstruction,” “integration,” “growth,” and “health.” 

In our haste to draw this distinction, we often conveniently overlook the many sources of stress, strain, conflict, and dissatisfaction that are embedded in the nature of current everyday life. From the imagined perspective of a subsequent disaster, this everyday life looks rather stable and serene, and we choose descriptive terms suchas “peaceful,” “organised,” and “equilibrated” to contrast it with the presumed disorder and chaos of disaster. The relative invisibility of everyday crises and the high visibility of disaster contributes heavily to the perpetuation of this contrast in human thought.

It’s true these things kill more people each day than Coronavirus has so far. Millions, are daily experiencing the pain and privation associated with the loss of intimates, with injury or illness, with interpersonal and inter group conflicts, with social and material deprivation, or with failures to meet social expectations and personal aspirations. Yet these potential stress-producing events have a kind of “random incidence” (Wallace, 1956). Unlike the Coronovirus, they are not sufficiently concentrated in time and place to threaten the basic integrity of the community or society as a whole. This fact, combined with the general tendency for people suffering stress to privatise or “hide” the effects of stress from public view, make the everyday crises of life in general, much less visible to the observer than disasters appear to.

The great paradox is that we had to be set apart in order to feel together.  You only see the social fabric when it’s lost. It’s like when you’re starving and food becomes all you can think about.  Now, everybody has human connection on the top of their mind.

The Distinction between Social Connection and Social Solidarity
There’s an important distinction between social connection and social solidarity.  Social connection means feeling empathetic toward others and being kind to them.  That’s fine in normal times.  Social solidarity is more tenacious.  Its an active commitment to the common good – the kind of thing needed in times like now.  Social solidarity is the belief in the infinite dignity of each human being and seeing people embedded in webs of mutual obligation.  It celebrates the individual and the whole together. Solidarity is not a feeling; its an active virtue.  It’s out of solidarity and not utilitarian logic that George Marshall, depicted in the movie, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ endangered a dozen lives to save just one.  Solidarity is when health care workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not do for yourself or another, but for the common good.

Watch the above 1 minute video showing that Solidarity is not a feeling; its an active virtue.  It’s out of solidarity and not utilitarian logic that George Marshall, depicted in the movie, ‘Saving Private Ryan’ endangered a dozen lives to save just one.

It will require a tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead.  We’ll be stir crazy, bored, desperate for human contact.  But we’ll have to stay home for the common good.  Its an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for.  Those also serve who endure and wait.

Charles E Fritzs’ research shows that social lifein the aftermath ofdisaster fulfills many of the essential human needs that are missing in the everyday life of modern societies.  The emergent ‘community of suffers’ develops an interactional system uniquely its own; a system that does not have primary reference to the preexisting social system, but to the situations and experiences produced by the disaster. Both its membership and interactional pattern emerge in the process of individual and collective activity aimed at comprehending and coping with the effects of the disaster.

The ‘community of sufferers’ goes through several distinct stages of development. It is formed when the survivors learn of the self-transcending and encompassing nature of the disaster and begin to communicate with each other about it. The structure and forms of interaction adopted by the community of sufferers during this stage can be shown to be both individually and socially therapeutic in nature and effect, in the sense that they:

Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal.

There’s a weird clarity that comes with that embrace.  There is a humility that comes with realising you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life.  When these plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.

Moreover, disasters achieve what laws cannot: equality. Because calamities are uniquely egalitarian in their capacity to kill indiscriminately, they dampen the qualities that make us different. Wealth, race, political affiliation; these things matter little to killer viruses, bombs and hurricanes.

When people come together to combat an existential threat, they suspend their racial, religious, and ideological differences. Under these conditions, we can freely interact with one another, using tragedy as a common frame of reference.

Be well, stay safe