Learning facts doesn’t make you wise; wisdom comes from replacing outdated or incorrect facts with better, more nuanced ones. As leaders, we are duty-bound to seek out and continuously reframe our understanding of the COVID-19 crisis if we wish to have any hope of safely leading our people to safety.
It’s been a gruelling seven months since the novel coronavirus first reached the United States. It’s been six months since I first heard about it. A buddy of mine asked if I’d heard anything about ‘this new virus in China’ and whether I was worried about it. I remember telling him that influenza killed about 34,000 people and hospitalized about half a million people in the U.S.A. last year. The early reports coming out of China suggested that fewer people were contracting COVID-19 and, of those, fewer people were dying. Using the seasonal flu as a benchmark, I wasn’t overly concerned yet. Time would tell.
That was early February. In the months that followed, news began to pour in about how contagious and deadly the new virus could be. Oddly, even as the news reports flooded in, my buddy steadfastly insisted that COVID-19 wasn’t a ‘real’ threat. It was completely overblown, he said. He even called it a ‘hoax’ several times. ‘Low mortality,’ he said. ‘Easy to cure.’ At one point, he insisted that the economic damage inflicted by local lockdowns would kill far more vulnerable Americans than would simply allowing the coronavirus to infect everyone and burn itself out.
For the first several months, I argued with my buddy every time he advanced one of his specious arguments. I showed him the latest medical intelligence and analysis, refuting his talking points one by one. he pushed back, citing non-medical sources like partisan television personalities and celebrities. To really torque me off, he always came back to his ‘trump card’ argument: ‘You said yourself that this virus is less deadly than the seasonally flu and I agree with that. Therefore everyone is overreacting. Checkmate!’
I put up with this nonsense for four months before insisting that the topic was permanently off limits for all future discussions. We could talk about business issues or personal issues, movies or games, but not about the pandemic. We had – and still have, to this day – an irreconcilable difference of perspective that makes it impossible for the two of us to discuss the coronavirus. When faced with new and evolving situations, I strive to consume as much new information as I can from reputable sources to challenge and inform my positions. My buddy … doesn’t. Once he feels he has a lock on a given situation, he forms a life-long opinion and will not be swayed by new ‘evidence.’ Given that, arguing is a complete waste of time for both of us.
I suspect our conflict might be due to generational differences. I’m about fifteen years older than my buddy. I remember the AIDS epidemic: how the U.S. government downplayed the severity of the virus and treated the deadly infection as a ‘moral problem’ rather than a medical one. Thousands of people died unnecessarily because deliberate misinformation and abject cruelty on the part of leaders who knew better.
I remember the Cold War, too. How we were constantly fed a steady diet of scaremongering stories about the Soviet Union’s lust for global annihilation. Then we discovered that the so-called ‘missile gap’ was – and had always been – a deliberate and calculated fabrication that the U.S. government used to justify increased ‘defense’ spending and to distract us citizens from our many domestic policy problems. There’s no telling how many tens of thousands of people died from the East and West’s ridiculous string of ‘proxy wars’ thanks to – say it with me! – decades of deliberate misinformation and abject cruelty on the part of leaders who knew better.
All that in mind, I prefer to view breaking news with a sceptical eye. Early opinions are, I believe, usually wrong. Not necessary because the people reporting the news are biased (although that does happen) but because there usually aren’t enough hard facts to fully explain what’s happening. The early arrival of the coronavirus in the U.S. was one of those chaotic, confused periods where more speculation took place than reasonable reporting. There were experts warning the powers-that-be about the significance of the virus and what best-practices should be implemented. There wasn’t a coherent or consistent message coming out of government agencies about it. There still isn’t, much to our horror. Google ‘coronavirus deaths in the us so far’ and you’ll see over 160,000 examples of preventable tragedies … and more by the time this posts.
Having lived through several examples of cynical, manipulative politicians lying to us about legitimate threats and issues, I’ve made a habit of constantly consuming new information from credible sources. I expect to be wrong because I expect to be regularly waylaid by both intentional and unintentional misinformation. I’m happy to discard bad positions as soon as I learn that I’m wrong. That’s why my initial comparison of COVID-19 to seasonal influence lasted less than two weeks. The better I understood the context, the more I realized that my initial mental model was fatally flawed and should be discarded.
My buddy, though, grew up in the Nihilistic Nineties. For him, the Cold War was ancient history. AIDS was just another disease. The only ‘global crisis’ issues worth talking about happened in movie plots. The real world was boooooring. So long as the economy kept growing nothing really mattered. There wasn’t any compelling need to correct your own flawed opinions because your opinions didn’t matter. News? Current events? Form an opinion once then ignore the story.
I know other millennials who share his perspective. I’m not in any way trying to throw shade on those people for it, or suggest that even a large part of the demographic shares this attitude. Rather, I’m trying to understand how my buddy became who and what he is today. I empathize with the social forces and influential media that helped create their (I believe, self-destructive) worldview. Childhood experiences significantly influence one’s adult beliefs and habits.
Speaking of generational differences and childhood influences, one of the influential pop music artists from when I was in high school was Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame artist Pat Benatar. Everything she recorded seemed to be a hit. One in particular stands out because of its relevance to this topic: the chorus to her July 1985 single ‘Invincible’ goes as follows:
We can’t afford to be innocent
Stand up and face the enemy
It’s a do-or-die situation
We will be invincible
It’s a really catchy song. Give it a listen. Songwriters Simon Climie and Holly Knight seem to have tapped the zeitgeist when they wrote it. The lyrics seem as relevant to our national situation now as they did then … provided we change two words. The AIDS epidemic, the Cold War, the Iran-Contra Affair, and a bunch of other deception-fuelled scandals dominated American news broadcasts and water cooler conversations. The first three lines of the four-line chorus resonate: if we wanted to protect ourselves and prevent meaningless deaths, we couldn’t, as a society, afford to remain ignorant. That is so say, we were obligated to learn the truth about what was really happening in our world so that we could hold our elected officials and critical decision makers accountable. Nihilism and ennui were vices that only the rich could afford. Same as now, really, in that we conflated wilful ignorance (refusing to accept new information) with innocence (being free of blame). If anything, deliberately remaining ignorant of society’s critical problems was viewed as clear evidence of guilt and culpability; refusing to address reality exacerbated the crisis being ignored and contributed to more unnecessary deaths.
The second needed tweak to the lyrics comes at the end of the chorus. New and improved knowledge has never made anyone ‘invincible.’ Knowing how AIDS – or, now, how the novel coronavirus – really spreads won’t make anyone immune from it, any more than ignoring it will inoculate them. Neither expertise nor innocence will save someone in and of themselves. Everyone must pragmatically apply the latest vetted knowledge in conjunction with a sober risk assessment and a thorough analysis of alternatives to maximize their chances of staying relatively safe. We reduced AIDS deaths post-Reagan by attacking the problem as a medical challenge, not a moral or ideological one. We’re going to have to do the same if we want to contain COVID-19. That’s going to require everyone to reevaluate their understandings of how the virus works in the body, how infections happen, which countermeasures are ineffective (and why), and what it will take as a collective effort to bring this threat under control.
The key word there is ‘collective’ … So long as effective disease mitigation is a solely individual effort, our society is in deep trouble. To paraphrase Pat Benatar, we can’t afford to be ignorant; denying the problem – as my nihilist buddy is wont to do – is a direct and inexcusable threat to the safety of others. We’re all going to have to address this problem head-on and with a clear head. Every leader at every echelon – political, corporate, media, and community – must be not only preparedto accept their own mistakes but must be eager to change their mind as newer, more accurate information comes in. Pride is the mortal enemy of competence.
We have to deal with this threat as it is, not as we might wish it to be. We’ve already seen the early price of failure. We can’t afford to continue making these known errors that stem from flawed mental models and wishful thinking.