Human Behavior in a Time of Pandemic

Essential and non-essential workers, finding our best course for tomorrow.

Posted May 31, 2020

The media has been very critical of our national and individual responses to the coronavirus pandemic. They speculate on how many lives we could have saved, had we shut down and isolated earlier. They decry the risk people take on beaches and in gatherings, as the virus is still spreading. But humans often do things that are not in our interest, just because we want to. We smoke, drink, or use drugs, and die early from overdose or complications of addiction. In one, as with the other, individuals make what they feel are their best choices, even as observers disagree. It seems to be easier to tell someone else how to run their life than to make optimal choices for ourselves. 

Criticisms miss the fact that most Americans are just trying to get by. Last week, we read about the recklessness of people partying through Memorial Day weekend. Media accounts demonized them, speculating how many will get the virus. Emergency workers and delivery drivers risk COVID-19 every day, just doing their jobs. There's a good chance some of last weekend's partiers were also essential workers. Are they heroes on the job, but villains on the beach? 

No one wants to get sick or die, but people evaluate risk very differently, depending on their individual circumstances and what information they receive. One thing psychologists know: human ability to judge risk is poor. So who should one listen to? The detached moral authority? The expert? The worker whose livelihood may be at risk? Or the public, either through their votes or their dollars? 

COVID-19 is a virus that attacks the old and infirm. We have traditionally protected those people, and from that, young people learn the veneration of elders and taking care of family. For almost as long, select humans have amassed power and placed themselves in protected positions, supported by their workers. We call them royalty or an elite, and people tolerate it until it becomes too egregious, at which point they rebel. This pandemic is stirring those feelings, and a reckoning may come soon. But for now, this is not a time for rebellion. It is a time to get through.

That brings us to the growing divide over quarantine, sanitizing, mask-wearing, and social distancing. Some think this virus is a mortal threat, and they hope those steps will be protective. Others feel the threat is overblown and we have to get back to the business of America, whatever that means to them. 

To a significant degree quarantine, work shutdowns, and mask-wearing have become liberal causes embraced most strongly by those who working from home. They present their view as a moral high ground, leaving those who are out in the world, keeping things running, in an inferior position. It’s easy to support draconian quarantine measures if you have abundant security, money, and food.  

From the safety of their homes, privileged people embrace every strategy to keep the virus at bay, and most succeed. But the hard truth is that those who are safely working from home do so on the backs of those who lack that luxury. Home-based workers have become a privileged minority, protected from risk, while less fortunate people are endangered to support them.

I’m sure most of the millions who started working from home did not have those motivations, at least consciously. Instead, they thought, for example, “I can be an effective lawyer from home, just as well as in the office,” without considering that their statement is only true if the infrastructure to make work from home possible remains intact. That requires a supporting army of people, all of whom are at increased risk.

Many of the journalists whose opinions we read are sheltering at home today. With every passing day, the gulf between a home isolation worldview and the views of those doing essential jobs widens. From the former perspective, home is safe, and everything outside is a potentially deadly threat. For the essential worker, the world is the same, but there is a virus we must be mindful of. Essential workers should take precautions but carry on. It’s easy for an essential worker to see those at home as overreacting, and when their views clash, trouble ensues.

Every day people suggest that we should have quarantined earlier or shut down more completely. Those who advance those arguments are overlooking the fact that most Americans would starve, if locked in their homes for a month. 

That emerging social chasm is a big problem, but there is another even bigger issue that compounds it—breakdown of trust. In a decade of government advocacy, I have watched how mistakes, omissions, and lies undermined trust in government. We are now paying a high price for that, as millions refuse to wear masks or follow medical advice. When some in government say one thing, and others say another, can we blame people for not knowing what to believe?

When a vaccine is developed, many Americans will refuse it, because they don’t believe in vaccine safety or the motives of the people who supply it. For millions of Americans, facts have been shouldered aside by hunches and opinions. And it’s not just government. People don’t trust employers, the media, and with the fear that anyone may be infected, they no longer trust their closest friends. 

Like most Americans, I’m all for protecting vulnerable people from disease. But I also believe we need to protect our country, and our way of life. It would be a tragedy if we let our institutions collapse because we are scared of this disease. Our nightclubs and bars; musical performances; our art galleries; our theaters—all those and more are part of our culture. The longer we keep them closed, the fewer of them will reopen, and we may have a long dark period while we wait for new institutions to grow in their places. That is the unspoken cost of shutdown. Those of us who are out in the community every day see them withering before our eyes.

If my life experience is a guide, people do not want to build a new world when this pandemic ends. They want to save the one we have. My fear of the virus is with me every day, but it no longer dominates my thoughts. I hope I won’t get sick, but if I do, I know I’ve been where I belong. Life is full of risks, some large, some small. I am not being brave; I am just going to work and engaging with other people. Carefully. 

I wear a mask when interacting, because I believe the public health officials who advise me to do so are giving their best advice. When I meet people, some wear masks and others don’t. Whatever I think about masks or safety, it’s not for me to tell them how to behave. If their behavior worries me, I can step back. I recognize I am privileged to own my workplace and have that luxury. For that, I am grateful.

As an autistic person, I have felt like an outsider all my life. Perhaps that helps me see the things I describe. I suspect I have an easier time with coronavirus isolation, because I've been isolated in other ways already. If there's one thing I've learned, it is this: Don't be so quick to judge others whose opinions and behaviors differ from my own. Learn how to get by and get along.

As a small business owner, my job is to chart a course that keeps our employees working and gets us through this crisis. I have a responsibility to the people who depend on us, to ensure we emerge from the shadow of pandemic, intact and strong.