Crises bring out some truly weird behavior--in individuals, in groups, in governments. Asweallknowbobs, there've been a boatload of crises recently, nice big juicy global ones. And on the heels of my observing some of the weird behaviors, my 21 May copy of Nature (science journal, British, really good) has two essays on risk management and what governments should and should not do when faced with a potential big risk. And I'll discuss those essays in a bit, but first I want to land feet first in the muck of weird behavior to tackle what I see is lamentable lack of intelligent design (all possible puns intended) in responses to crises.
Visible in recent crises have been the following typical responses to the announcement of a future or immediate crisis: "Oh, that's terrible! Help! Save us!" quickly followed by "Who's to blame and how can we skewer them?" and "Oh, that's ridiculous; there is no crisis." quickly followed by "Who's to blame to trying to foist this false crisis on us and how can we skewer them?"
Which response you get depends on how the responder feels about the person from whom he/she heard of the crisis. Those who believe the government is always wrong and always lies to citizenry will disbelieve word of a crisis (if that's the governmental word) and also disbelieve word that no crisis exists (if that's the governmental word.) Whatever the "official" word is, they'll disbelieve it. Others trust/distrust informants on more narrowly political grounds: if their favorite political party/politician says it's so, then it must be, etc. In other words, a lot of people have faith in certain informants to either always tell, or never tell, the truth. They ignore contrary evidence the way Creationists ignore the fossil record, genetics, and the other evidence of evolution.
Example. In the current issure of Wildflower, the magazine put out by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center, there's a letter to the editor by an irate former subscriber who objected to a letter to the editor in a previous issue (about global warming: that person referenced a study on its effect on forest decline in the west.) This current letter-writer is a global-warming denier, and ended by asking "How much does it profit your organization (i.e., the Wildflower Research Center) to keep the 'global warming' scare as a top priority for Americans?" and then declares that he's leaving. And of course, and obviously to anyone with a few hundred functioning neurons, the Wildflower Research Center doesn't profit, and was not itself trying to keep global warming as a top priority...that was someone else's letter to the editor, expressing someone else's opinion. And obviously, to anyone with a few etc., global warming is in fact occurring (hint: glacial retreat: ice melts when it warms up. Go look at a glacier. Go look at fifty or sixty glaciers.) But the declaration of faith by one political position is that it's not...that a record cold temperature on one date in one place overturns the whole notion (and the retreating glaciers and ice sheets and the poleward advance of plants and animals formerly found nearer the equator.) But to those convinced that only their Leader can be right, if their Leader says it's not happening, it's not happening. I think they think glaciers retreat because "junk scientists" go up there with blowtorches to melt them (and perhaps I shouldn't say that, since one of the brainless wonders will grab that as a real possibility. No, no, no. I think these people will, if they live long enough, find a way to blame the other side for the warming they thought would never come, as if saying "There's a hurricane headed your way" is what made the hurricane head that way. No, no, no on that one, too. (That's magical thinking. You're supposed to outgrow that....)
But this isn't a global warming rant, so I will back away from the forty thousand other words I could say, and get back to weird behavior in crisis situations and how to bring about more rational, and less weird, behavior. And those Nature essays.
One fairly constant behavior, broadly shared, is reluctance to change one's mind. A kid tastes, say, an olive, and doesn't like it. Getting that kid to taste an olive again can take years...and decades, even, though there's evidence that taste preferences change a lot with age. (I used to dislike bitter chocolate. Now I like it. Go figure.) And when opinions change, they're apt to change radically: the pendulum swings way over. The only place a pendulum is still is at the end of its swings, not (unless it's motionless) in the middle. Blessed are they whose minds are formed in the middle of the swing...OK, not always, but there's a point to this, and it responds to gravity, masquerading as reality. Don't nitpick yet.) The nonbeliever becomes the fanatic; the kid rebelling against staunch Donkey or Elephant parents chooses the other, and a more extreme part of the other. Many of us were brought up to admire The Little Engine That Could, who kept stubbornly attacking that mountain head on, because there was only One Right Way, one track, from here to there. Perservere, we're told. Keep trying. Try, try, and try again. Quitters never win; winners never quit.
And the stupid keep believing their Leader when, from the outside, it's clear they're being led over a cliff...and those who are happy to lead the stupid over the cliff deride those who say "Whoa, wait up, there's some new evidence...." as "flip-flops" who can't hold to a position.
Is there a value in holding to a position? Depends on which position. I firmly hold the position that in base 10, 2 + 2 = 4. You're not going to convince me that 2 + 2 = 5 if I will only invest in your hedge fund. You're not going to convince me that 2 + 2 = 3 if I will only take that expensive weight-loss supplement. I hold that position firmly because I can look beyond it, see the alternative theories, and evaluate the evidence. Nope, sorry, don't think 2 + 2 in base 10 will ever be anything but 4. Other positions, of a political or social nature, I hold very lightly indeed, modifying them on the basis of evidence--and as the evidence accumulates, I may find that my earlier position is no longer tenable (and sometimes it is. But to explain that would require leaping into the past ten years of American politics. Not now.)
So, on to the crisis under discussion at Nature, the H1N1 flu and its risks and the best risk-management strategy. Predictably, public opinion has already hardened into these camps: 1) the whole thing was a hoax engineered by the government to scare people and reduce their freedom, 2) the risk was real but people overreacted, especially the governments of Mexico (which barred tourists from certain areas) and Egypt (which took this opportunity to kill pigs owned by non-Muslims--pigs a lot of people didn't want in the country anyway.) 3) the risk was real but nothing's being done and we're all going to die come fall, so get out the guns and prepare to defend yourself.. There are subgroups in each camp, of course. One of the wildest of the "hoax" claims I've seen argues that the CDC created it to use up their stocks of Tamiflu and vaccines. (This subgroup, which includes vaccine avoiders, believes fervently that vaccines are worse than disease...)
Both the essays in Nature, Peter M. Sandman's "Pandemics: good hygeine is not enough" and John M. Barry's "Pandemics: avoiding the mistakes of 1918" discuss risk management, both the good and the bad, and suggest what should be done.
The 1918 influenza pandemic proved that lying to the public ("It's just the same old grippe--chills and fever--" ) does not work in the long run and costs lives. Governments rightly fear panic--when, after the reassurances proved false, people panicked in the 1918 epidemic, they refused to go to work. As Barry's essay says "Lies and silence cost authority figures credibility and trust. With no public official to believe in, people believed rumors and their most horrific imaginings." Absenteeism crippled shipyards and railroads, shut down telephone exchanges, left towns with no open stores, no coal supply, no food. But in the few cities where the public officials were open, did tell the truth, and (perhaps most importantly) gave citizens something to do to cope with the situation...fewer deaths, and less breakdown of the socio-economic system. To quote Barry, "Where people had accurate information and knew what they faced, they often performed heroically."
In fact, panic is less common than governments believe, and the methods governments have traditionally taken to prevent panic (treating citizens as "children" and hiding the truth from them) typically backfire and cause the panic that was feared, when it becomes clear that the once-trusted parental government has lied.
But accurate information can be (has been, will be) denied by those who are not prepared to hear it from that source, or at all (because their favorite source, their Leader, says something else.) They are made more vulnerable by bad education (bad education strongly favored by those who want stupid followers...Leaders need people who can't think, not just those who don't, because those who don't might wake up someday and start.) Citizen action prior to a pandemic, for instance, focuses attention and effort on things that may run counter to certain vested interests: if you spend your limited resources on stocking up so you don't run out of things that may be in short supply, you're not likely to spend those resources on, say, nonessential consumer goods. Grocery stores and hardware stores may be happy with you, but travel agencies may not.
What, then, do these authors think is essential for governments to communicate between one another and to their citizenry? First of all, the truth. The truth is a little complicated, but we aren't babies: we're adults. We should be treated like adults. The truth is that this H1N1 virus has shown that it has human-to-human transmission and that it travels and that it can be lethal. It had the potential to produce a pandemic, and there's a strong likelihood that it may. The 1918 flu came in two waves, the first much milder than the second (that appeared in the fall of the year the virus first appeared.) That's why the concern that this fall-winter might bring a worse mutation of this one, now that it's been in humans for long enough. The truth also is that it may not--its next mutation might make it less virulent. The truth is, also, that hygiene--handwashing, not sneezing on people, etc.--is only one step people--you and I--can and should take. Those in authority should be telling us that, and telling us what to do next (and what we're told should be doable, and make sense. Give reasons. Explain why it's important and how likely it is to work.) The truth is that in any crisis, flexibility, adaptability, innovation are important--but the truth also is that top-down organizations can stiffen into unresponsive rigidity.
A pandemic can cause a breakdown in transportation and communication if enough people are out sick (or are afraid to go to work.) So the usual hurricane-prep steps all apply: Have food, water, medicines, etc., set aside in case. Cycle through these, rather than letting them sit on the shelf and spoil. If you have room, and aren't already gardening, now would be a good time to learn. (Start small--container gardening, even--because small gardens hovered over produce more per square foot than big ones half-cared for.) Consider how you can care for sick family members in the home; learn some basic sickroom-care techniques. Look beyond yourself to your neighbors, neighborhood, community. Merge resources--the most valuable of which is human knowledge and skill. Avoid the tendency to make everything top-down...let the talent rise up.
True, if people prepare for a pandemic that doesn't come, they may feel the effort is wasted...but, as one author points out, this is like saying that because your house didn't catch fire this year, you didn't need to pay your house insurance last year. Or clean that chimney, or repair that old squirrel-gnawed wiring in the attic. Preparedness is a sensible precaution...you can always eat the extra peanut butter (or whatever staples you have) later. And if it does come, then you're in better shape yourself and better able to help those who, to the very end, said "But it has to be a hoax."
My mother always kept a jug of water, a blanket, a snakebite kit, an entrenching tool and a few boards suitable for putting under a stuck tire, a roll of toilet paper, a Bible, and a pair of white gloves in the car when we went anywhere. The only one I never saw in use was the snakebite kit. Given the inefficiency of snakebite kits of that day, that's just as well...but we went out picnicking in rattlesnake country, so it was a sensible precaution to have it along. Some trips we used none of them. Some trips we used any or several of the rest. Was it a waste to take them on trips when we hadn't needed them? I don't think so. Preparation for crises (any and all) is a way of being flexible--of saying "Whatever comes, I'm going to cope."
Refusal to admit that a crisis is looming--or that there's anything you can do about it except wait for rescue--is immature and unintelligent. Maybe H1N1 flu won't become a 1918-type pandemic--I sure hope not--but there are other potential and currently-active crisis-level problems. Neither panic nor pretending they don't exist will benefit us, as individuals or as part of humanity. For most serious problems there's a time--early on--when simpler, less expensive, less bothersome responses can be made to head off worst-case results. Anticipation sometimes allows prevention...and when it doesn't, it still allows the most timely, most effective, preparation.
So...head out of the sand, but not in panic-mode. Look around. At some point--maybe this month, maybe this year, maybe in five years, maybe in ten--you'll be very glad you made preparations, or very sorry you didn't. The basic preparations--to ensure that you have food to eat, clean water to drink, a dry place to sleep, a way to dispose of your waste, warmth in winter and shelter from sun in summer--are the same for most of life's disasters. So is the mental preparation--the habit of looking at real life in real time, learning to assess the evidence for a threat and the possibility of your having an effective response, the making of plans with contingency trees (if this, then that, but if this other, then that other, and if that doesn't work...then the third thing), the habit of staying calm and using your head in confusing or difficult situations, of cultivating in yourself non-rigid habits of thought and varied coping mechanisms. It does not matter which warning "comes true." It does matter that you are ahead of the game by even a few days of preparation.