Life in the Time of Corona

Why leadership matters in a crisis.

Posted Mar 20, 2020

There comes a time in an Englishman’s life when he achieves the realization that, across nearly half the planet, "Independence Day" means "Independence from your ancestors, day."

Don’t be alarmed. I’m not about to indulge in some woke moral grandstanding. The Irish and the English have a chequered history, but I think a lot of English people would benefit from the Irish perspective—especially when it comes to the shared folk memory of the Irish famine.

Irish people are often shocked to learn that most English people have never heard of it, or England’s part in it. But I’m not here to scold today. Well, not just yet. I’m a psychologist, and I want to draw attention to what I think is, in part, one of the results of that famine in the Irish psyche: Knowing how to pull together in the face of an enemy (potato blight) that cares not a jot for you, while others who could have helped—England, alas—failed conspicuously so to do.

I’m an Englishman, who lives in Ireland, and I’ve noticed a marked difference between my two homes—one by birth, the other by choice—in the last few weeks. Now, what I am about to say is all anecdotal at the moment. I do have some ideas for formal testing, and if anyone fancies a collaboration, then drop me a line.

But—informally only—what I’ve noticed is that the British (or is it the English now?) are sharply lacking in the sort of things that they used to pride themselves on: fair play. Sympathy for the underdog. Humor. Being all in this together. While the Irish have turned up the gain on all the things that they are famous for. Family. Loyalty. Ingenuity. Music. Laughing at the Brits.

I think this is partly a function of leadership. Irish people felt united when Leo Varadkar, technically only a caretaker Taoiseach (equivalent to the PM) delivered a blinder of a speech the other night about our response to COVID-19. It wasn’t just him, of course, Simon Harris, the health minister, also delivered an impassioned call to arms for health care volunteers to join the fray. Twenty-four thousand people stepped up the next day. I should note—neither of these two men (nor the other men and women who have been on Irish TV pulling the country together) is flashy, populist, or even (I hope they’ll forgive my saying so) “charismatic” in any obvious sense. Instead, they drew on shared Irish values (such as family), and they were sincere, consistent, and clear.

The message has been a coherent one in Ireland from the start. Flatten the curve. You especially don’t want to give this hideous disease to your gran, though no one is immune. It’s going to be tough, but we can make it if we stand together.

My impression of the UK is that coherence is not the mood of the moment. No nurses are appearing on Irish TV crying that the supermarkets have been stripped of supplies, but this just happened:

Why the difference? Leaders help give meaning to events.

England (not Britain) has long had a special weakness for two types of leaders. Maybe it’s some sort of folk memory, or maybe it’s what people of the English type generate as leaders? Be that as it may, popular leaders typically draw on either the Icy Dominatrix persona of Queen Elizabeth I or the Bluff King Hal persona of her father, Henry VIII. If they manage to carry either of them off, then a large section of the English population will dutifully show its congenital weakness—a tendency to bend the knee. Margaret Thatcher managed to pull off the Queen Elizabeth archetype, whereas Theresa May did not. Boris Johnson has, of course, been trying to draw on the Bluff King Hal archetype. It hasn’t worked.

It worked previously when he could bluster his way through details whose untruth only mattered to people without power, and who could be brushed aside—or into food banks. But viruses do not care about human social divisions or the silly games of politics that their primate hosts like to screech at one another. Viruses are not interested in the invented truths of social space or politics. As far as they are concerned, humans are all equally nutritious.

One thing this pandemic is making people realize is that a lot of the independence that money seemed to confer was illusory. You can be as rich as you like, live in a gated community. But you need your food delivered, your pool cleaned, your toilet scrubbed, your back massaged, your food cooked.

It is a crippling irony that this year's Oscar winner, Parasite, detailed just how connected humans are in material reality, no matter how much some may feel elevated over the rest by money or status. Paid for the best health care, did you? You had better hope that the nurses, doctors, cleaners, and porters in your hospital have also had the best health care, because COVID-19 isn’t as bothered by social status as you are, and it will leap from one to the other happily.

Sorry to sound scolding, but this is what you’ve brought me to, England: Saying that Piers Morgan is owed an apology. Yes, I can’t believe I’m writing these words either, but I’ll repeat them. Piers Morgan is owed an apology. Last week, when he was asking the perfectly logical question of how it could be the case that social distancing did not matter, but washing our hands did, he was leaped on by social media, gleeful that he had challenged a health care expert, Prof. Jason Leitch.

But being a health care expert does not make you exempt from the laws of logic, and what Morgan had asked was perfectly logical.

And here’s the thing—at some level people knew that. They knew that we could not be simultaneously telling people to “flatten the curve” while telling everyone—as did Professor Edmunds of London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine—that we had to increase herd immunity.

If you try to make people simultaneously believe contradictions, then something has to give. But you knew that—because you’ve been following my recent posts about cognitive dissonance. I'm not arguing whose strategy is right. I'm pointing out that the message from leadership didn't make sense.

So, what happens when you back humans into corners where the world no longer makes sense? When, for example, their leaders require them to trumpet falsehoods? They defend themselves, with all the mechanisms at their disposal. Kubler Ross famously talked about this in relation to bereavement—where the world stops making sense because a loved one has died—but the response pattern is quite general. When the world stops making sense, then we respond with the well-documented psychological defenses.

We are seeing exactly these patterns across all the countries with poor leadership: anger (“It’s all the fault of the Chinese”); denial (“I don’t accept any responsibility”); bargaining (“It will just kill old people, and then society will improve”). You all know what comes next: despair.

Pull yourselves together, Britain. I know that the overall leadership has been shocking, but find local leaders who you can trust to do the right things. Don’t despair: In a disaster, look to the ones helping.

References

Kübler Ross, E., & Kessler, D. (2005). The five stages of grief. In Library of Congress Catalogin in Publication Data (Ed.), On grief and grieving (pp. 7-30).