Saturday, March 21, 2020

Panic, Anti-Panic, and Anti-Anti-Panic

I notice that there are lots of commenters over at Maggie's Farm who are strongly in the we-are-overreacting and even the this-is-not-that-big-a-deal camps. One of the main contributors at Instapundit is as well.

Years ago there were Tavistock weekends, where people would sign up to come on site and be assigned to groups. The assignments were arbitrary, and no directions were given about what to do next. Even though there were no tasks, the groups would create structure.  They would form working groups to discover from the organisers what they were supposed to do.  They would have meetings with other groups to see if they had any ideas, or would send delegations to confer. As the weekend progressed there would be arguments over leadership within the groups, or competition and resentments between groups. These could even get quite heated.  Even after the late Sunday discussions that confirmed there never was a purpose and it was all an exercise in learning about the underlying structure of inter and intra-group behavior, people would still carry anger away.
As an aside, it did not help if people went on repeat weekends where they knew the premise.  Everyone still got involved in rescuing, harmonizing, attacking, undermining and all the rest. There seems to be some common patterns of group behavior. We are not utterly predictable, and seemingly insignificant events can move us from one pattern to another.  But there seem to be consistent ruts in human behavior.

When we started to hear stories out of China about C19 there was not much response at first.  People were curious, a few made dire predictions, and there were explanations offered that were derived from what people knew, or thought they knew, about conditions in China, Chinese markets, Chinese laboratories, or Chinese politics. As the news grew and the virus spread to Italy people showed more concern here. I wondered if there would be panic. I reasoned that if there were panic, people would exhibit their pre-snowstorm behavior, the default emergency setting. A month ago I bought toilet paper and all those food items you now can’t find on the shelves now.  I overlooked disinfecting wipes, but otherwise have a spare food collection I could isolate with by moving upstairs.
I wondered if governments and medical officials were panicking about the virus, and if Trump had acted precipitously in his progressive closing of borders.  I now think a few days earlier would have been better.  Thinks that look like panic in the moment can turn out to be reasonable caution.  There has been an escalating series of interventions at all levels.  California has been shut down.  At the micro level, when I get a cup of coffee at the hospital cafeteria, I cannot take sugar, lid, or stirrer for myself.  I request them and am handed those items by a gloved worker. Will we look back and say such things were ridiculous overreaction?  Perhaps.

We are now entering a stage of anti-panic.  This rebound was entirely predictable. Some of us quite naturally consider contrary positions to whatever is most popular, especially if the government is involved.  Others dislike any inconvenience and are looking for an excuse not to have our actions circumscribed.  Others have jobs or businesses that are going to be harmed or even fold, who would be willing to endure a great deal more personal risk in order to feed their families. Still others are very concrete, believing what they have seen in their own lives over what others tell them.  It’s supposed to be this big crisis and everyone’s running around waving their hands.  But hardly anyone is dying.  I’m getting tired of listening to it. That is common in NH, where we have few cases. There is also the predictable phenomenon that groups and individuals will try to use any crisis for their own ends.  People observing that create another large anti-panic group: those who suspect that much of the crisis is being held aloft by those who would take advantage of it. All of these are tricky. 
I will break here to echo Tom Bridgeland’s comment that this is not true panic.  Those who go to the grocery to pick up a few common items only to see stripped shelves are tempted to say those other people are “panicking,” but that’s an overclaim.  However, I will continue to use the word for its simplicity, asking only that the reader will keep in mind that we have not seen true panic, and are not likely to.

Returning to the group behavior lessons of Tavistock, neither panic nor anti-panic tells us much about our real danger. Our own human responses drive a great deal of our behavior.  Those partly align with our actual levels of danger but are not reliable indicators. It is best to assume that “panic” occurs for reasons which are at least partly good, and anti-panic is likewise founded in both inherited wisdom and our own intelligence. There are two large confounding factors in attempting to discern what is real here.
First, most of the world can’t do math and science all that well, and in the case of a novel virus, the math and science is elusive and uncertain anyway.  Even the wise are walking through the swamp at night searching ahead with their feet for drier ground.  I am in no way qualified to help any of us here on that score.  I can do math and I understand science, even having read recently about plagues and epidemics in history, yet am still not an authority who should be listened to.

Second, there are those many who do not care for your well-being or mine who are attempting to use any crisis to increase their power (or wealth, or prestige).  The best I can say about this is that our anger about this is natural but likely to impair our judgement.  If we see that the Peace and Justice coalition is in favor of Senate Bill C19 we are in danger of thinking to ourselves “Those bastards must have some selfish reason for this.  I resolve to make sure that bill never passes.” But SB C19 might be fine. Seek other opinions.
There has been some interesting place-switching here that I think is healthy.  I have read Trump supporters who think he is overreaching on this measure or that, and Trump haters who are acknowledging that they think he is handling some other aspect quite properly. While this is good news in and of itself, it also doesn’t tell us much whether he is right or wrong. We have to try and sort that out on more objective grounds.

Yet where to find objective grounds? I think attending to the medical professionals has one large advantage.  They have a lot of skin in the game.  They do not agree and the usual pride and obstinacy of human beings does apply to them as well. They may get this wrong.  In fact, we can be sure we will get some things wrong and strive to learn better for next time. But those who are watching patients get sick and die should be assumed to at least have the good motive of desiring less death. That is true of all of us, but less certainly. People who run hospitals are taking this very seriously.



Douglas2 said...

Maybe I'm in the anti-anti-anti-panic camp.

"Thinks that look like panic in the moment can turn out to be reasonable caution". But things that seem reasonable to some in the moment -- such as complete closure of the rest-areas on the Pennsylvania turnpike -- are actually counterproductive because we still need goods to be transported and those who drive need restrooms, food, and safe-parking for breaks. That one has thankfully been reversed with input from cooler heads.

I've several young friends who had just started out their post-college teaching career as supply/substitute teachers, and with the closure of schools that pretty reliable source of income just dried up instantly. One has taken a supermarket "seasonal" job, public-facing. The owner of her houseshare is still expecting to receive rent, as the owner of her houseshare was only able to reallyafford the mortgage with the expectation of offsetting rental income, and the bank is as of yet still expecting the mortgage to be paid.

Her parents are concerned, of course, about the interaction with the public and working in a place accessible to the public, but her father is also public-facing behind the counter at a supply-house. Both father and daughter worked out arrangements in their respective homes that the others who are sheltering-and-not-going-out-in-public use one bathroom, and the one going out into the world uses another, along with restrictions on who uses which outside doors, the one who goes in public has no use of the kitchen but the others will prepare and serve food and drink, and who-may-sit-where so that within the home the one who might be in contact with a carrier is effectively physically isolated, but not socially isolated, within their own home and household.

Every such restriction on behaviour has a cost, but in their eyes the cost is minimal as a temporary measure and the benefit of protecting those they live with from the potential of catching the virus if they become exposed at their work is worth the extra hassle, and they know the other participants well enough to be sure that the strictures will be observed.

I'm often critical of "something must be done, and this is something" responses where the "something" is either not calibrated to actually improve things or diminish harms. In hindsight, I see a lot of virtue in New York governor Cuomo's daily briefings each with incrementally more severe strictures on movement and employment, as it allows the stress points to be seen gradually also -- I suspect that there is some level of desired lockdown that he is aiming for, as our administration who are in contact with the office-of-the-governor have been asking us to think about implications of potential restrictions "just in case" on a schedule that has been pretty lock-step at 7 days ahead of when they are implemented.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I wonder if masks should be higher on the list than at least some of the closings.

Sam L. said...

As we said in the service, "Run in circles, scream and shout!" Wear yourself out, and get back to work.

DirtyJobsGuy said...

Unfortunately the fascination with zero risk and testing blinded government and others to practical measures to help. These often have the side benefit of giving the public confidence. ICU beds are no more than special rooms with special ventilation and equipment. FEMA could have been tasked with pre-constructing mobile centers. Ditto for masks and gowns. Here in Hartford the paper noted that CDC did a mock pandemic drill with hospitals last fall. things like surge capacity and protective equipment problems were noted as issues. these positive actions would accomplish much more than handwringing about testing etc. Also we need a Churchill type leaders who give us confidence that we will get past this. People will do a lot if you give them something more to do than sit in an air raid shelter

Texan99 said...

Masks, gowns, gloves, disinfectant, ventilators, chloroquine. Surge capacity.

I believe people are in fact mobilizing to make these production changes. I'm sorry we don't see more stories about that, and fewer "gotcha" press conferences obsessing about wording used 30 days ago.