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Everyday People Ending the Pandemic

August 18, 2020

By Geoff Frost, UBC Physiatry Resident


 

Coronavirus will be with us for some time. At least until 2021. Perhaps longer. Many of us pin our hopes on a vaccine. Skimming through the paper, listening to the radio, watching the news, all with the hope of hearing about a breakthrough. Any small hope that maybe one day we can return to normal.

The tragedy of this approach is that the key solutions to ending a pandemic are already with us. Think about it, almost no other pandemic in human history has ended with a vaccine. Contagion, the morbidly prophetic 2011 film, conditioned us all to believe that pandemics end at the tip of a needle. But, remember SARS? MERS? Neither of these ended with vaccines. Rather, they ended through diligent public health measures enacted at local, subnational, and national levels. The truth is, we have the tools to minimize the effects of Coronavirus right now. We even have examples of these tools put to good use. We’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating: South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and to a lesser extent Germany. Public Health measures work. To me, it’s senseless to pin our hopes on a possible vaccine when a proven solution already walks amongst us, at times virtually ignored.

 

Yet public health interventions seem to invariably touch that metaphorical third rail. The idea of curtailing certain personal freedoms or changing our plans seems to engender an explosively negative reaction amongst some of us. That some people would balk at public health measures does not surprise me. In any group of reasonable size, you’ll find some odd opinions and non-conforming behaviour. What has made this behaviour particularly troubling in this moment is the reach these views have on social media platforms. In 2001 with SARS, what would have been an unpopular opinion at a family dinner can now rapidly become a Facebook post that spawns a small protest. 

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The emergence of social media has been much discussed as a vector for disease spread almost as dangerous as the virus itself. But as with the pandemic, it seems a humble solution stalks amongst us, entirely ignored.

Examples of humanity’s ability to bond together and overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle are legion. The London Blitz, the citizens of Gander, Newfoundland during 9/11, Genie Chance and the citizens of Anchorage in 1964. I could fill an entire blog with just a point form list of these examples. Overcoming obstacles is always complicated. But in every situation, one of the key underpinning principles is our own psychology. More explicitly, our own ability to find the mental strength to resist. The mental strength to continue in the face of all odds. The psychology underlying these moments in our history is undoubtedly complicated. But an intriguing study done in Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park seems to hint at an important clue.

 

The Petrified Forest holds rare examples of, you guessed it, petrified wood. The park was experiencing theft by visitors. Each little theft reduced what was left for future generations to enjoy. Cialdini et. al. designed an intriguing study. In one arm of the study, they put up a sign that told visitors the forest was being destroyed by other visitors stealing petrified wood. They were asked not to steal. But, confusingly, there was an increase in the amount of theft from the park with this sign. In another arm of the study, visitors were told that most tourists did not steal any petrified wood and that it was necessary to leave the wood in place. Surprisingly, in this arm of the study, theft of petrified wood went down. Cialdini and his colleagues surmised the key difference was the appearance of normative behaviour. Humans are inherently social animals. We always try and conform to the norm. At times, this can have horrifically negative consequences. We see a negative norm and conform to that norm. But at times, it can have wildly positive consequences. All we need to do is harness the positive behaviour and to imprint it as a norm amongst our group. Most commentary about mask wearing in public implicitly points to this truth. Remember Singapore? It’s simply a cultural norm on the tropical island to wear a mask when sick. No big deal. No second thought needed. It’s just what you do.

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Watching Covid-19 progress through North America, I cannot help but think that we are ceding the public dialogue to those with no interest in resolving the pandemic. Rather, we are allowing the cranks, the quacks, and the downright dangerous to dominate our public discourse. Masks are bad. Social distancing is a government ploy. It, depressingly, goes on.

But the solution is right there in front of us. What’s required is the establishment of a new norm. And the tool to do it, conversely, is the same tool that’s undoing us at the moment. Just like a hammer can be used in war, it can also be used to build a house. Tools themselves are not inherently good or bad. How we use them is. What we need to establish is a culture of public health adherence on social media. I understand the temptation to show a normal life. Out with friends, a smile, happiness, normalcy. But the definition of normal has changed. A big meal with twelve people is not our reality any more. Masks, hand washing, and social distancing are. Every time we post a family photo of 15 at the dining room table we give permission to the cranks. We tell each other that everyone’s stealing. The natural reaction is to get in on the stealing before there’s nothing left to steal. 

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There are brave, lonely voices in our world pushing for this change. Bonnie Henry comes to mind. I was recently hit hard by a medical school classmate of mine sharing the vitriol she had received online for recommending mask wearing. But therein lies the problem, Dr. Henry is out alone on an island, both literally and metaphorically. What we need is to establish a new norm. Call it Everyday People Ending the Pandemic. What if once a week you shared a photo of yourself wearing a mask? Social distancing? Using hand sanitizer? It is not interesting. But it establishes a norm. It does not have to be negative or hectoring. Just there, establishing that new norm. Dr. Henry would no longer be alone, but rather, the avatar of a massive movement. If 9 out of every 10 social media profiles showed individuals in masks, we would rapidly establish a new norm. The norm of public health adherence: social distancing, masks, hand washing. Because the truth is, our world has changed. There is no need to pretend otherwise.

So, next time you think of posting something on social media, I encourage you. Hashtag it. #EPEtP.

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Geoff Frost.jpeg

Geoff Frost

Geoff is a fourth-year Physiatry resident at UBC and is the host of the Pulse Podcast. Geoff is a professional engineer in Ontario, and prior to entering medicine, he worked as a biomedical engineering entrepreneur. 

 


 

 

 

 

 

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