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How a bad response to coronavirus will make things worse

‘Emergency responses can feel very much like a hazard themselves: big, impersonal, incomprehensible, and arbitrary.’

We expect disaster responses to help. Whether they come from NGOs, international organisations, or national or local governments, we want them to funnel resources in some at least moderately efficient way to support people who are struggling.

Of course, we all know that responses can go wrong, too. We often debate whether a bad response is due to incompetence, negligence, or lack of resources. The responses to the coronavirus epidemic have been no exception, particularly as the near-global spread of the virus has made it possible to compare government actions in real time. However, without a way to measure the effectiveness of responses, or a consensus on what an adequate response looks like, it’s difficult to improve.

And that’s a problem. Disaster responses done wrong can worsen the impacts of the crisis or hinder resilience. For the people affected by them, responses can feel very much like a hazard themselves: as big, impersonal, incomprehensible, and arbitrary as the hurricane or earthquake that caused the damage.

“For the people affected by them, responses can feel very much like a hazard themselves.”

But, of course, institutional responses are not like natural hazards; they are human artifacts, more comparable – when they go wrong – to industrial or technological accidents (I’ve written more about response as a secondary hazard here). And research on technological accidents has shown they have a very different effect on communities than naturally triggered disasters. Kroll-Smith and Couch, who studied the effects of a long-running underground fire in Centralia, Pennsylvania, found that: “The altruistic community that emerges in the wake of natural calamity contrasts sharply with the social hatred that characterised Centralians’ response to their long-term, humanly produced disaster.” 

In other words, while natural hazards bring people together, human-made crises fracture communities.

In a survey of similar studies published in 1997, sociologist William Freudenburg identified three broad types of social impact caused by industrial accidents: “ambiguity of harm”; the emergence of “corrosive communities”; and sociocultural disruption. 

Ambiguity of harm refers to the uncertainty of effects, particularly long-term effects. For example, after the 2011 Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear disaster in Japan, doctors and scientists were unable to tell residents of the voluntary exclusion zone how or to what degree they would be affected if they stayed. This lack of certainty meant people lacked the information to make their decisions, raising stress levels and pitting residents against each other as they tried to argue for their preferences. 

Corrosive communities emerge around the urge to blame someone for the disaster and the uncertainty about whom to blame. Is it the government? The company responsible for the industrial accident? The community itself? 

This worsens into sociocultural disruption as authority figures and formerly trusted institutions are shaken.

These elements should sound familiar to all of us in this moment of pandemic anxiety. The virus itself is natural, but our human interaction with it – the way the response is being managed by various governments and institutions – can become a self-inflicted disaster. 

It fits the pattern Freudenburg described: There is ambiguity of harm: we don’t know how fast the disease will spread or how badly it will affect people, and the uneven information from official sources highlights that uncertainty. Should we buy masks or not buy masks? Should we self-isolate or just wash our hands more?

As people blame different groups for the crisis, corrosive communities are emerging, raising conflicts at a time when people need to be working cooperatively. People are being shamed if they wear masks or looked at with suspicion if they cough without one.

And the prospect of a collapse of familiar systems – air travel, supply chains, business continuity, pension savings – is likely to shake people’s faith in government and the economy. Most of us take it for granted that daily supplies will be available whenever we want to buy them, and empty shelves are a frightening reminder of the prospect of scarcity.

“As people blame different groups for the crisis, corrosive communities are emerging, raising conflicts at a time when people need to be working cooperatively.”

This means that when the US government makes contradictory statements about the response, it is dangerous in the short-term because of misinformation and confusion, but it also has a pernicious long-term effect: fracturing communities, as some believe one of the statements and others cling to a different one; reducing trust in government and other information sources; raising stress and anxiety levels. 

Moreover, since studies suggest that social capital – community cohesion – can be a powerful factor in preventing and surviving crises, this kind of fracturing can lead to a vicious cycle: a poor response leads to disorganisation and resentment among people affected by the disaster, which makes the response more difficult, leading to greater mistrust and resentment.

We expect our governments, our scientists, and our healthcare systems to be able to protect us; their failure feels like something that is being done to us. This is particularly true in situations like the coronavirus epidemic, with multiple governments responding simultaneously in different ways. Comparing the response we are receiving with other, more competent (or more lenient or more authoritarian) ones exacerbates feelings of betrayal and victimisation. Outsized claims about the progress of the response – and prospects for containing the outbreak – only make it worse, especially when some people believe them and some don’t, furthering fractures in the community.

No response is perfect. But governments and international agencies alike need to realise that perceptions of failure and irresponsible messaging can turn even the most well-intentioned efforts into an additional disaster.

Responders, and especially authority figures, should work to minimise uncertainty and address questions of blame, taking responsibility for their own errors. 

The failure to do so will have immediate implications for how the course of the disease unfolds, but can also have much longer effects on the community.

We don’t know how bad coronavirus is going to get, but the response needs to strengthen social cohesion, not tear it apart.

Behind the headlines: How will COVID-19 impact crisis zones? | Thursday 19 March

Aid agencies are scrambling to adapt as the COVID-19 pandemic is felt throughout the world. Join Senior Editor Ben Parker as he speaks to leading experts and practitioners from across the humanitarian sector to discuss some of the most pressing issues.

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