Keep calm and wash your hands

Flu, Terror & Moral Panic

Crises are laboratories for the study of change – in particular human behaviour. As the world wrestles with the impact of the latest event, (novel coronavirus, COVID-19 or SARS-CoV-2), many will be observing how politicians, security forces, officials and entire populations are behaving. Among those are existing or ‘wanna-be’ terrorists who see bio-weapons as a cheap, effective means of shaping the battlefield in their favour.

At the outset, I wish to make it clear that I do not support the many conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19. Flu viruses do the rounds, mutate and are eventually brought under control through the building of natural resistance, vaccination or both. Zoonotic diseases, those transmitted from animal to human, flare up from time to time.

New Zealand has, so far, had few reported cases (8 at this time) but there will be many more infected people in the country before travel restrictions were introduced on 15 March 2020 who are either asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms but are contagious nonetheless. But, just as in war, focussing on the ‘body count’ completely misses the point. The economy is in for a pounding and will not recover until the world stops sneezing. Medical capacity will be stretched this Southern Hemisphere winter and security forces will inevitably be diverted from other activities. The normal pulse of society will be disrupted exactly a year since another major event, the Christchurch mosque attacks, caused public gatherings such as ANZAC Day to be cancelled or restricted.

This leads to considering just how useful the current restrictions are. Human reactions are reasonably predictable. About 10% will slavishly follow the guidance to self-isolate for 14 days and go above and beyond to ensure that they don’t come in contact with anyone. About 80% will give it a go but cut corners through rationalising the needs of another situation like getting food, helping someone worse off or transporting a child. The remaining 10% will be of the view that the government isn’t going to tell them what to do and carry on regardless. If this were not the case, no-one would smoke, drink alcohol, use drugs or be overweight.

‘I – the People’

The language adopted by the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, is becoming increasingly disturbing if not downright sinister.

“If they do not self-isolate, I will have them quarantined and I’m looking at my deportation powers … I take that very seriously.”

the Government would “know” if people were refusing to self-isolate, and if people wanted to contact Healthline to inform them of people who weren’t compliant, “they can do that”.

No doubt some advisor has whispered in her ear that she needs to show strong leadership. Perhaps they can whisper in the other ear that adopting the language of male dictators is not helpful, not the Kiwi way and certainly isn’t leadership. Leadership is a relationship based on trust working toward a common purpose. The very real political danger is that by fronting every announcement, as Ardern is, the inevitable fall-out from this event lands in the same lap. Do we still have a Minister of Health? Civil Defence? Seniors?

The style of her media interviews, to date, can only be described as one that will foster moral panic. Do we really want to live in a country where the PM encourages citizens to act as Stasi-like informants on their neighbours? If the risk is that high, just quarantine everyone and remove the ambiguity.

While arriving Kiwis can head home (in the forlorn hope of not infecting anyone or being infected) via planes, trains, buses, taxis, rideshare or private car, self-isolation for visitors is not so easy to achieve. The first few in town may be able to extend their hotel booking from 1 night to 14. When all the hotel beds are full then what? We are back to finding facilities for them like Defence Force bases. What of the freedom campers? GPS units on their vans? The government’s pandemic response plan is at the phase designated as ‘Stamp it Out.’ In this regard, Ardern has built her own version of Trump’s wall. Far more expensive than she can imagine and only ever capable of being superficially successful.

The next round of regulations has already been flagged as limiting large public gatherings. How this plays out is yet to be seen but probably will mimic restrictions overseas. The Government will declare it ok to attend an event as long as there are fewer than a certain number of people there, they aren’t closer than a metre to each other and the whole thing takes fewer than 15 minutes. I can see it in action on ANZAC Day. Divisions of 499 people, double-rank spaced, files 1.1m apart and a service lasting 14 minutes 59 seconds.

Social Cohesion, Risk and Preparedness

What observers, good and bad, will be most keenly noting is the response of the citizenry to events such as this. As New Zealanders, we like to think of ourselves as hardy and resilient. Sadly, that’s not true. Panic buying of toilet paper speaks volumes about the herd mentality and individualism that is evident, particularly in our cities. In the country pubs, people are shaking their heads and laughing at the ‘townies.’ I was amused and encouraged to see a Bottle-O in Australia giving away a free roll of toilet paper with every case of corona beer sold after women there were fighting in the aisles of a supermarket over the last few rolls.

We live in a country prone to all manner of risk events. Focussing on preparedness and response to every specific event would consume all your time. My doctoral study into business continuity in New Zealand (1998-2002) showed poor preparedness across the hazardscape. While the data is now old, the behavioural findings hold true. People tend to prepare for things they have experienced before, those that are legislated for and those that are receiving significant media coverage. This is despite any real risk assessment. We should always be prepared to either have to stay at home, leave home quickly, cope with denial of services (utilities etc) or deal with loss of key people.

Many solutions to hazards should be available locally within a cohesive community. Who are the people in your street? How do you contact them? Who might need help in a flu, earthquake or storm event? For most Kiwis, the questions can’t be answered. “It’s the government’s responsibility,” is a common refrain. The government can’t solve everything. In an out of control pandemic situation, there will never be enough hospital beds, clinicians, police or defence force people. Imagine if ‘Patient Zero’ was deliberately placed in New Zealand or a bio-terrorist placed a ‘Patient Zero’ in multiple countries simultaneously. Our Civil Defence volunteer force and Defence Force Reserves, two elements that have previously been the mainstay of local civil defence efforts, are all but non-existent. That leaves ‘pay-as-you-go’ private security companies as the only viable ‘force’ throughout the country that could assist in, say, a mass containment effort. I believe it is time to think once more about some sort of voluntary national service (perhaps in exchange for repayment of student loans) that would include an option for a Singapore-style civil defence corps?

As countries ‘harden’ their defences against the most recently experienced threat, terrorist will move to the next easiest course of action. It is inevitable that bio-weapons will be considered but most likely that they will be used to ‘shape’ the battlefield rather than an end in their own right. The solution to this is national resilience down to the individual level. This means encouraging greater personal freedom, not less. It is an ongoing concern that we only seem to have discussions and education about risk and preparedness when an event occurs and then, as a country, we drift back to the way things were or totally over-react and then don’t remove temporary measures when they are no longer appropriate ‘just in case.’

To keep some perspective on things, remember that you are much more likely to be hurt or killed driving than a terror-attack of any kind or COVID-19. So, take sensible precautions but don’t buy into the moral panic that some politicians and officials are creating. Keep calm, drink corona beer if you want to, prepare sensibly for effects, not events, and keep in touch with people in your community.

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