As the Covid-19 pandemic deepens, new behaviours manifest and new insights appear. As we move beyond the initial lockdown phase—i.e. enough people are sick of it that its effectiveness is waning—the cracks are widening. What’s now clear is that coronavirus triggers a ‘fight or flight’ response in many people.
In a recent article in the Guardian, Alexandra Villareal describes How coronavirus has created a new split in American life: “Two Americas have emerged from the coronavirus pandemic: one where protesters cry out, armed, for a return to normalcy, and another which shies away, concerned that the virus is still raging.” In short, fight or flight.
The fight or flight response is an instinctive reaction to danger. Also known as ‘acute stress response’, Wikipedia describes it as “a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival.”
As a description of coronavirus—and much of the response we’re seeing to it—that’s pretty apt.
Villareal relates how Carol Zernial hasn’t been to a supermarket for months. But what worries Carol is her hair. “I have had actual nightmares, I have had sleepless nights worrying about haircut, no haircut.”
Back in March—remember March?—former British Supreme Court justice Lord Sumption warned against over-reacting to the pandemic, then still in its infancy. (The US had registered just 4,000 deaths at that point, not the current 120,000.)
“Anyone who has studied history will recognise here the classic symptoms of collective hysteria,” Lord Sumption told the BBC’s The World at One. “We are working ourselves up into a lather in which we exaggerate the threat and stop asking ourselves whether the cure may be worse than the disease.”
Lord Sumption’s comments may explain the ‘flight’ side of the response. What about the ‘fight’ side?
It’s in the complete abandonment of social distancing by the 500,000 Britons who flocked to the south coast beaches during a mini-heatwave, in illegal rave parties, the “devil-may-care attitude toward Covid-19” by “mask-flouting crowds” that Villareal describes.
These actions suggest a desire to party on in the face of danger, to ‘cock a snoot’ at coronavirus, to use an old phrase. Many people are unwilling to be cowed by a seemingly unstoppable opponent. Every single Hollywood blockbuster embodies and glamorises this ideal. For younger people in particular, mostly unaffected by the disease, it’s easy to see why coronavirus triggers fight rather than flight.
Each side has its rationalisations. The threat of coronavirus is real, particularly for those with underlying health conditions. Carol Zernial’s haircut could be fatal. The risk is tiny, but it’s there.
Those who flaunt lockdown have their own reasons. Villareal quotes throwaway quips like “you only live once” and “I can’t breathe in the mask, so I’m not gonna wear it.” These excuses sound flimsy, selfish and irresponsible.
Those on the ‘flight’ side of the divide argue that they’re being responsible, while those in ‘fight’ mode aren’t. But is this the case?
Those on the ‘flight’ side of the divide argue that they’re being responsible, while those in ‘fight’ mode aren’t. But is this the case? They are “following the science,” to quote a currently overused phrase, while the lockdown flaunters aren’t.
But whose science are they following—the science of the Covid-19 transmission specialists? What about the science of the immunologists, the psychologists and the economists? There are various sciences to consider, and they refuse to neatly align. Rising law and order issues suggest there are stresses in play here that need to be factored into our thinking.
Is it responsible to wrap ourselves in cotton wool in response to a statistically improbable risk? To prioritise those with underlying health conditions over the psychological wellbeing of the whole population? Is it responsible to ‘fight coronavirus on the beaches’—to paraphrase Winston Churchill—by refusing to let a disease get in the way of some sunbathing?
The only thing that seems clear right now is that there’s no simple answer.
The one thing we can do is to observe our own behaviour. Are we behaving sensibly—or is coronavirus triggering a fight or flight response in us?