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Courage to Think the Unthinkable: The Pandemic Might Get Worse

What should we do in case we're at the beginning, not the end of the pandemic?

We all have COVID fatigue and want to believe, with the vaccines, that the pandemic will start winding down soon.

But what if the pandemic is just getting started and will last years, or even decades longer?

This scenario, although unlikely, is entirely possible. The UK variant is not only much more contagious than its predecessors, but the evidence is mounting that it is also more lethal.[1] As additional variants pop up, as they are bound to do with so many millions of people infected, each person spawning new mutations of the bug, epidemiologists worry that vaccines will cease being effective.

As with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it is possible that the vaccines themselves will bring into existence variants of the virus that especially evolve around both the vaccines and anti-viral treatments.[2,3,4].

Thus, we should start planning now for the remote, but plausible scenario where COVID becomes more contagious, more lethal, and “escapes” vaccines and antiviral treatments, greatly increasing the death toll and devastating health effects—such as permanent lung, heart, and kidney damage —in the survivors.

The first, and by far most important step, is to acknowledge that we need to plan now for the looming catastrophe. If 2020 taught us anything, it’s that, when a disaster strikes, there’s no time to put in place public health measures needed to cope with the disaster. And widespread reluctance to dig in for a long-haul fight now is precisely the reason that we need to work hard to persuade a COVID weary public, not to mention Government officials and scientists that now is the time to tighten, not loosen our grip.

The second step is to acknowledge that psychology, not biology, holds the key to coping with a looming downturn in our collective fortunes. Had larger numbers of people believed in the threat and consistently followed the guidance of public health officials, including masking and distancing, the pandemic would already be in the rearview mirror, as in New Zealand.

The third and final step is to exploit our knowledge of social psychology to craft approaches that have a chance of actually working this time around.

I’m a physiological psychologist, not a social psychologist; my last observation is more a call to action to folks who do have the right training and experience, than anything else. Specifically, taking into account that public health messages have so far failed to adequately control the pandemic, what novel ideas, based on behavioral science, will persuade people that the virus is real and that masks, distancing, avoiding big gatherings indoors, gathering outdoors whenever possible, controlled quarantines, and other public health measures are essential.

But, as a former Disney executive, I do have one hopeful suggestion, born of my long exposure to world-class storytellers, that grows out of something Walt Disney himself once said to his animators.

You can talk to people’s minds, or you can talk to their hearts. But remember, there are a lot more hearts out there than minds.”

I have two takeaways from this nugget of Walt’s wisdom:

1) It explains why appeals to logic over the past year (e.g. wear masks, socially distance, stay home, and so on) have failed to stem the pandemic tide. A lot of people’s hearts simply weren’t in it.

2) To get people’s hearts in it, we could use some good old-fashioned Disney-style storytelling to get people to care, not about COVID itself—because we already know that won’t work. But stories that first make us care about people, then make us care about what those people care about, might just work.

For example, suppose Hollywood put together a new streaming series, set in a dystopian not-so-distant-future, that graphically depicted the reality of the dark future I worry about, complete with widespread poverty, disease, continued denial, and social unrest. The one-liner pitch to studio suits would go something like this: “Mad Max Meets COVID.”

The show would feature a cast of appealing, sympathetic characters, struggling against the disease itself, and continued denial about the disease.

My unscientific premise in advancing this suggestion: it’s far easier to get people to care about people than it is to get them to care about things, even when those “things” might threaten their lives.

It’s improbable that this idea will work, true, but a master storyteller who preceded Walt Disney, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said it best when he put these words into Sherlock Holme’s mouth.

“When you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the answer.”