Contagion has captured our collective imagination for centuries. Perhaps it’s the magnitude of the consequences, the disruption to the status quo, the rapidity and the limited control that we can exert over circumstances, or the way in which the fallibility of your average human is amplified. We try to make sense of such events by narratives: telling stories — to ourselves and to others.
Literature and films are replete with inferences or direct representation of catastrophic infectious diseases. Love in the Time of Cholera, Outbreak and Contagion are just a few examples. In The Plague, Albert Camus uses the context of a city under quarantine to explore the human condition. What better way to explore those deep values, philosophies, priorities, activities and ethical considerations than by viewing humans, under stress, in a petri-dish setting (excuse the poor metaphor).
Narratives matter when it comes to global health emergencies of this scale. Management of a pandemic lies as much in the public relations realm as it does in the public health sphere. The stories about coronavirus that we are told and then retell have an influence on our behaviour; and individual and collective behaviour is one of the key determinants in limiting the trajectory of the virus. Human behaviour is that complex, wild-card parameter that has spurred hordes of academic research by epidemiologists and behavioral scientists alike.
The official narrative
Anyone in news and politics knows that there is a small window of time in which the core narrative can be framed. With pandemics, the timing, content and manner in which information is narrated is of key importance. Information needs to be timely and precise but also comprehensive enough to satisfy public curiosity. Deciding when to ring the global alarm bells is the unenviable task of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The implications of labelling an infectious spread as a pandemic are playing out before us in real time. Quarantine, social distancing and travel bans have major effects on the intricately interwoven global economy. Raise the alarm too early and the effects are greater; sit on the information for too long, or incorrectly predict the severity, and face criticism and the loss of lives or money because of excessive preparedness.
The stories that national and local leaders tell us during these times, as well as the manner in which they are told, have obvious potential for political leverage. Tell the stories well and the polls will be in your favour; a poor performance and it’s a squandered opportunity. People are looking for clear facts, confident leadership and a call to some type of action. In the realm of political theatrics, the United States is a forerunner. In a year with a national election, the narratives crafted around coronavirus to achieve political gains are important to observe.
Narratives that we are told by traditional and social media are how ideas have the potential to go really awry. In a post-truth world, it’s not only that facts don’t always matter or that they are misrepresented, but there is a concerted push toward misinformation. In times of pandemic, this is counterproductive — and deadly. The WHO is presently forging alliances with big-tech companies to remove fake news about the coronavirus. Why these systems weren’t already in place — before this pandemic — is anyone’s guess. Trying to control a story when it’s already on social media is the equivalent of tracking down patient zero. Bureaucratic institutions such as the WHO and nation states move too slowly to effectively “police” misinformation.
Tech companies and media houses need to introspect. Does the need to increase traffic by publishing click-bate articles that may incite panic trump the public good? Our interconnectedness and the knock-on effects of individual ethical choices has never been this evident.
Crafting futuristic narratives
That pandemics of this nature will be a recurrent feature of our foreseeable future is a reality — a consequence of accelerated globalisation. When we see reactions to the present pandemic, there may be the self-preserving panic-buying of toilet paper and stockpiling of groceries, which doesn’t make sense, but for the most part people are willing to come together — or rather, stay apart — for the public good. Different forms of organising that are less tied to tradition are being explored, such as innovative employment and education practices. There has to be a measure of constructive international co-operation — it works in everyone’s interests to share information and to collaborate.
Recurrent pandemics are a consequence of globalisation, which is rooted in human choice. We can also choose to craft a narrative for the future based on values of social solidarity that we see emerging on a large scale. It could be a narrative in which antiquated systems are upended to make way for more environmentally sustainable solutions. If anything positive has come out of this catastrophic test, it’s that new ways of living are not only possible, but probable; and that humanity has the potential to work together to protect common interests.
Ayesha Jacub is a medical doctor and global health policy analyst. She previously worked in the South African public health system and is now based in Istanbul