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Apr 6, 2020

The COVID denial land and failures of imagination

In retrospect, American reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic looks excruciatingly slow. WHO declared the public health emergency on January 30, Wuhan was on quarantine for a week, and a first US case was already ten days old. No one has really done anything, other than some travel restrictions. Everyone saw the huge hospital build in China in a few days, but no country rushed to build their own. It is easy to blame Trump’s administration, and the blame is probably well deserved. Many other world leaders were in denial, including the Chinese. But let us not ignore the collective failure of imagination. We all have visited the denial land. Some were there only briefly, some longer, and some are still there. But we all were there at some point.

There is a very completing argument that the denial is partially explained by the West’s cultural superiority. Indeed, the Italian lock-down on March 8 had actually prompted some action in the US, but it was too late for New York. However, let us look at ourselves. I went into our weekly updates. The first time I carefully suggested we may go online was not until March 9. Yet by that time, millions of school children and university students in Asia and Southern Europe were already out of school. We could have had 2-3 weeks of planned preparation rather than rush and transition in one week. It did not take a gigantic mental effort to imagine we will close campus soon.

Both the human mind and human cultures have elaborated mechanisms of denial. No one wants to panic, and then look silly if it turns out to be a false alarm. The society places heavy sanctions on the one who panics too soon. I guess it makes sense; you don’t want to go to overdrive every time a small chance of a disaster appears on the horizon. There is, of course, the Monday morning quarterback phenomenon: in retrospect, things look a lot more certain that at the time, because we know what happened. Yet fear of shame is what prevents us from letting our imagination work.

We have a hard time dealing with an invisible threat. It is just hard to generate the right amount of adrenalin without some visual representation of the danger. The graphs CDC and others put together do not do the trick. More paranoid people who have hard time trusting anyone, go immediately into one or another conspiracy theory, imagining a man-made panic. I have seen a lot of them, in both English and Russian social media. Russians, are unfortunately, are much worse. Their minds have been massively infected by paranoia after years of distrust and state-sponsored fake news. However, the general trend is this: I can see people talking about the danger, but not the danger itself. The fear misplaces its object: instead of fearing the danger, one begins fearing people talking about the danger. It is basic projection, both primitive and powerful. Shooting the messenger is the universal human sin.

Imagination originates with memory; it is the ability to remember extended on things that have not happen yet. This is why it works so well when the future is familiar. It does not work very well when the future is unprecedented. Because no one has been in the lock-down situation before, we failed to accept its reality. We perceived as a safe fantasy of science fiction, and just could not imagine it as a reality.

If there is any lesson in all this, it is that we have to be aware of the limits of our own collective and personal imagination. Humans are not that smart after all.

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