The news media have fallen in love with maps- to show where the virus started and where it is spreading. But we are less concerned with the geography of the continents and more worried about what we call the geography of meaning. Where is the meaning found and what direction is it moving ?
We say that because the virus is going to do what viruses do- spread. It has been called a pandemic by the WHO but still, people are stunned that the world is getting infected. How could that be? Well, that is what a pandemic is called. We can do our best to manage the infection with testing and social distancing. But no one is talking about managing the meaning. That is where we are clearly failing as people panic buy toilet rolls off the store shelves. And that is what our leaders are failing to do with almost every press conference.
The Virus is no surprise. It is going to do what virsuses do, and we can do our best to slow it down. But right now, the panic that spreads is not due to the virus but due to what we are taking it to mean.
If we believe that it is saying to us, ” I am out to kill as many of you as I can- so be very afraid.” then panic is an emotionally logical result flowing from our beliefs about this disease as a threat. But right now, in this window of time, we CAN do better to manage its meaning while the virus decides how devastating it is going to be.
I wrote a memo to policymakers in my journal a few weeks back, without realizing I was predicting what has happened since.
” For ultimately people will respond not to what it is but to what it means. Thus the secret for leaders for how to handle it effectively and efficiently is to manage what it means. We need to intervene just as aggressively in helping peolple make sense of it, as we are with helping people avoid infection. Our success in the second task of preserving the health of the citizens bodies is contingent on our success in preserving the health of the citizens minds. “
That reminds me of the Kipling poem that used to feed notions of the British empire and the stiff upper lip- but today it could easily speaks to us.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you
if you can trust yourself when all (others) doubt youut make allowance for their doubting too.
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise: