22 April: My daughter, her husband and my grand-daughter live in Florida. My daughter is a nurse. She doesn’t need to be told that covid19 is serious. She knows that very well – and has to go to work every day in that knowledge. Her fellow citizens in Florida however, including the Governor, don’t seem to be that concerned at all. Even when the Governor, one of the last Governors to do so, called for a ‘stay-at-home’, his order listed “essential services” to encompass “attending religious services conducted in churches, synagogues and houses of worship” – and indeed, he actively encouraged people to attend Easter services. This order was supposed to be in force from 3 April to 30 April but, surprise, surprise, he opened various beaches on 17 April. Sure enough, people flocked to them provoking a rather unpleasant hashtag trend ‘FloridaMorons’ – and there are all sorts of people tweeting that they have a right to respond to the virus in any way they please without being labelled in this way.
Apart from having a vested interest in Florida being rendered as safe a possible during this time, I am fascinated by what makes people scared of one virus and not others. I am reading a book called Pandemic: Tracking Contagions, from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond by Sonia Shah and she asks the question: “why do some pathogens provoke yawns while others trigger panic?” Americans have not been particularly disturbed by Lyme disease, dengue (which, by the way, is likely to become endemic in Florida), malaria or rabies but they were absolutely terrified by Ebola. The terror took on a name “Ebolanoia”. Shah concludes that it didn’t seem to matter “that Ebola was easily and simply avoided”, it was “its untamable nature that was at the root of the panic.” Corona virus statistics clearly don’t frighten and the death rate, except for specific categories, is relatively low. So far.
Polls in Britain show that the British are concerned, support the lock-down measures and reduced train and car travel suggests people are obeying the rules (#TheEconomist, 18 April)
One can’t resist pondering whether the difference lies, partly, in the messaging from the leaders in the two countries. In Britain, the Government’s message is unequivocal: “stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives” – and it is repeated all the time on all media. Maybe it is the positioning of ‘protect the NHS’ that strikes such a strong chord. It seems to me to be an excellent communication.
In sharp contrast, in the United States, the messaging from the glorious leader has been confusing, obfuscating and sometimes, downright wrong.
We know that this pandemic will change the world in many ways, unknowable right now but we should call governments to account for their unpreparedness for this pandemic. That is something that should concern us all. It shouldn’t happen again quite like this. I recommend Shah’s TED talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/sonia_shah_how_to_make_pandemics_optional_not_inevitable