From the comedian's video 'Explaining the Pandemic to my Past Self'YOUTUBE/Julie Nolke

 In April, the comedian Julie Nolke posted a video in which she imagined what she would tell her past self about COVID-19. She alarms her blissfully unaware January self by urging her to run to Costco and pull everything out of the stock market, with the ominous suggestion that “your definition of a big deal is about to change.” The video has been viewed millions of times across social media, and was posted on Facebook with the caption: “This comedian’s conversation with her ‘past self’ is all of us right now.” As we reel from the shock of the coronavirus outbreak, a common regret seems to be that we didn’t see it coming. Surely, if we’d had a little bit of forewarning, the sudden speed at which the coronavirus rampaged across the world would have been less startling? The global response would have been less hastily cobbled together... Right?

The problem is that, by some standards, we did have forewarning. Taiwan implemented screening amongst other preventative measures before even a single case had been confirmed within its borders; New Zealand went into strict lockdown after just 102 cases, while the UK entered a similar phase after 6,650 cases. In the initial stages of the pandemic, action was entirely a choice – and while some governments chose to heed the early signs, many governments chose inaction. Initially, even the World Health Organisation faced criticism for having ‘overreacted’ during an emergency meeting which took place on January 30th.

“As we reel from the shock of the coronavirus outbreak, a common regret seems to be that we didn’t see it coming”

Now, with the power of hindsight, we can see the results of this choice. Governments which began by downplaying the possible effects of the virus, such as those of the UK and US, have paid a heavy price in deaths and economic damage. Meanwhile, New Zealand has declared an end to community transmission of the virus. This has led to widespread criticism of the government for acting so late (66% of UK respondents to an Ipsos Mori poll believed that lockdown was imposed too late). This marks a dramatic turnaround compared with mid-March, when the government’s scientific advisors were giving recommendations on the basis that there would be considerable reluctance to comply with lockdown measures. This overwhelming feeling that we should have known more, we should have done more – ‘we’ being both the government and our past selves – makes perfect sense when we consider the grim consequences of inaction. But without the benefit of hindsight, is there any way we could have known in February or March that we should have been panicking?

'Panic' is often seen as the antithesis of 'reason'. Conspiracy theories (like flat Earth, or faked moon landings) which require large-scale distrust of every authority, from governments to scientific researchers, are widely regarded as the preserve of the uneducated – as are sensationalist tabloids and tweets, which frequently incite panic. On the other end of the spectrum, people who have spent more time in the education system - such as ourselves - are more likely to pride themselves on taking a measured approach, because this is the approach favoured by most educational and training programmes. This would include putting their faith in trusted authorities: maybe not politicians, but certainly scientific advisors, healthcare authorities and senior civil servants. When these authorities are asleep at the wheel, it is against the nature of ‘reasonable’ and ‘measured’ people’ to contradict them, and so they risk having a genuinely panic-worthy crisis sneak up on them. Being a ‘reasonable person’ myself, I went on a huge inter-college bar crawl the night before Trinity announced that everyone who was able needed to get home immediately: a decision which now looks glaringly unreasonable and even reckless.

“Without the benefit of hindsight, could we have known in February or March that we should have been panicking?”

On the other hand, how would I have known to behave any differently? At this point (March 12th), there was no urgency to the authorities’ recommendation of social distancing - it was entirely voluntary. If I had begun to cut down on how much I socialised, I would have been jumping to the conclusion that I was right and the government’s scientific advisors were wrong; I would have responded emotionally rather than waiting for conclusive evidence. This goes against everything I have ever been taught about decision-making. Yet anyone who refused to trust government advice and worried that thousands might die in February, anyone who would have stopped me from going on that bar crawl in March, has now had their ‘unreasonable’ and ‘emotional’ approach validated. Perhaps this does mean that people like me, who consciously try to make decisions in a measured and cool-headed manner, need to acknowledge where we were wrong and make peace with panic. 


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However, I think a general surrender to panic raises too many questions. Believing that we, or the authorities that govern us, are always as unaware of threats as we were during this crisis is a recipe for a fearful and uncertain existence. But we can still engage in constantly refining and updating our own decision-making processes, ensuring that we stay as informed as possible using a variety of national and global sources, and learning from the benefits of panic.  Panic can be dreadfully inconvenient, because it forces us to act radically and make sacrifices. Yet, these are two things which we absolutely have to be more prepared to do in the future, to have a hope of recovering from this crisis and in weathering future ones.

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