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Herd immunity or herd mentality: Which will define the 2020 corona-panic?

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Herd immunity or herd mentality: Which will define the 2020 corona-panic?

The handling of Covid-19 has been a crisis management disaster of gargantuan proportions and it could cost Africa dear, warns Ambassador Charles R. Stith

It’s ironic that the corona-panic has been the seminal moment (and will be the defining development) of 2020. I say it’s ironic because 20/20, relative to vision, means that one has normal visual acuity. 20/20 vision means one has the ability to see clearly. It means one should be able to make sense of what they see. When one has 20/20 vision, they should be able to read all kinds of signs. Metaphorically, one would hope that ability to see clearly would include being able to read the signs of the times.

The handling of the coronavirus outbreak has been a crisis management disaster of gargantuan proportion. A blind man can see that somebody has missed a few things along the way.

Crisis management

I know a bit about crisis management. I assumed my post as the US envoy to Tanzania in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of our embassy by al-Qaeda.

The embassy was so badly damaged we set up operations in the residence of our public affairs officer. My office was the walk-in closet in the master bedroom and the master bedroom was the conference room. Shipping containers were stacked on top of each other to complete our need for office space.

Barbed wire surrounded the complex along with machine gun turrets because we weren’t sure the threat was over. Dozens died and hundreds were injured.

Yet, we went on to relocate operations in interim quarters that were much more functional, site a new permanent building, rebuild our bilateral and community relationships, and set new benchmarks in terms of trade and investment. That’s called crisis management. What we’ve done in response to the coronavirus has violated the most basic tenets of how to manage a crisis situation.

On Sunday April 5 Donald Trump’s Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said during a Fox News interview about the coronavirus, “this is going to be the hardest and saddest week for most Americans. … This is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment.” So, now, the Trump Administration is trumpeting a doomsday scenario caused by the coronavirus.

Newsflash! If we follow the mad hatter down this rabbit hole we should know that the outcome will not be good. As the old adage goes, “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.”

Lurching toward the abyss

Since the corona-panic began I have been haunted by an obvious question that seems to be ignored (or obscured) as the world digs itself deeper and deeper into a hole. The hole being, there’s no end in sight relative to the spread of the virus and no end in sight relative to the damage that’s being done to the global economy. Hundreds of thousands may pay the ultimate price because of the former, and hundreds of millions are sure to pay because of the latter.

The question is, given that all objective data indicates that shutting down countries and the global economy is unsustainable, why does the world seem to keep lurching deeper, day after day, toward the abyss? While data relative to Covid-19 indicates it is manifesting itself in somewhat different ways than the three most recent viral outbreaks, nothing indicates, to-date, that it will be more deadly than the Swine Flu, for example. We survived that without the wholesale carnage, the stacked up bodies of the elderly and ill that the coverage of this outbreak would suggest.

Yet, in the past, we didn’t see such extreme measures as locking down a majority of the world and shutting down the global economy as warranted. Other than the panic, what’s different? And, why do we continue to introduce draconian and divisive measures in an unprecedented way?

Forget Trump for a minute. Why do most politicians, policy makers, public health practitioners, epidemiologists, and pundits, as well intentioned as they are, keep ignoring past approaches to dealing with “novel coronavirus” outbreaks? SARS, Swine Flu, MERS, and ZIKA were all “novel” coronaviruses.

There are more and more references to the battle against the coronavirus as the public health equivalent of war, if it is, how did we get to DEFCON 1 so fast? Yes, the coronavirus is new, which makes it different to an extent. While the differences are important, why have the similarities been so quickly dismissed? We have dealt with, or survived, however you want to put it, the Swine Flu, which was exponentially more deadly, as well as, Ebola, and ZIKA without the self-inflicted damage we’ve heaped ourselves in this case.

Let me underscore, the burden is disproportionately heavier for Africa to bear. Seventy percent of African city dwellers live in crowded slums and 85% of Africa’s citizens live on less the $5.50 per day. For them, shutting down the global economy for almost any length of time is life threatening.

The steps that have been taken, were in the name of affecting a degree of herd immunity to this new virus, but it seems to be a herd mentality that is most descriptive of the choices we’ve made and the path we’re pursuing.

Stopping the downward spiral

What do we need to do to stop the downward spiral? And, stop it, we must, because things are getting crazier by day. We now have everyone from the CDC to big city mayors suggesting everybody ought to wear a mask when they’re out and about, even homemade masks. Think about it, if a black man shows up at a pharmacy or bank wearing a homemade mask, are the odds greater that he will catch the coronavirus or a catch bullet from a cop, security guard, or the national guard?

We’ve got models that provide an accumulation of knowledge about how to do what needs to be done. The exotic, extreme, and experimental approaches we’ve employed to date are going to leave us worse off. We know the worst case mortality rates projected by the Trump Administration are bogus. We know the economic impact is going to be devastating, and we certainly can’t keep introducing such measures every time a “novel” coronavirus appears.

When a herd mentality sets in, by definition, it means people can be influenced by the “herd” to act in ways that are mainly emotional, rather than rational. When folks are driven by a herd mentality, they may make different decisions than they would have, had they been more deliberative.

The idea of a “group mind” was first explored by 19th-century French social psychologists Gabriel Tarde and Gustave Le Bon. Herd behavior in human societies has also been studied by Sigmund Freud and Wilfred Trotter, whose book Instincts of the Herd in Peace and War is considered a classic in the field of social psychology. 

In nature, one of the most mystical and mysterious phenomena is the great wildebeest migration. Some two million animals move between Tanzania’s Serengeti to Kenya’s Maasai Mara. More than a half million wildebeest are born during this trek and 250,000 die from thirst, hunger, exhaustion, or as food for their predators.

The thing that enables the vast majority of the herd to survive the journey is what scientist call, a “swarm intelligence”. This instinct enables the herd to overcome unimaginable obstacles along the way. Even during, what seems to be a perilous journey, the lessons of survival define the day. Interestingly, among the human species, when a herd mentality sets in, it tends to signal that we’ve lost our way.

If we continue down the road we’re headed, we clearly put our standard of living and way of life in jeopardy. Africa’s advances over the past several decades will be all but erased. If we follow the “mad hatter” down the doomsday rabbit hole we put more than that at stake.

It’s not too late to raise the right questions in a concerted and coherent fashion.  If we do, the world just might survive the corona-panic in one piece.  

Ambassador Stith served as the US envoy to Tanzania under President Bill Clinton. He is currently the chairman of the Pula Group, a US-based company that invest in Africa, and non-executive chair of the African Presidential Leadership Center, a Johannesburg-based NGO.

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