COVID-19 Chronicles: How mental biases leave us unprepared for disasters

The 2020 pandemic has raised many questions and exposed faultlines in our systems. Why did we not foresee the COVID-19 crisis? Who deserves blame for this forecasting failure? 

While these questions are important, I wonder if we should be expending some energy to figure out the following first: had we seen the crisis coming, would we have reacted differently?

Just like the financial crisis, few people saw COVID-19 coming. Until it hit us at breakneck speed, we remained oblivious to the fact that we are woefully underprepared to handle a health crisis of such gigantic proportions. And that’s not because we’ve never been faced with such a crisis before — we have. We are caught off guard because we’re terrible at learning lessons.

If history repeats itself, it is only because human nature is inert. 

This inaction has a name in psychology — Normalcy bias. It leads you and me to believe that bad things do not and will not happen to us. It makes us discount threats and risks of a pending disaster and makes us stick to status quo. Time and again in human history, lack of timely action has led to losses greater than what the complication initially merited. Think eruption of Vesuvius, hurricane Katrina or the Chernobyl disaster. Normalcy bias makes us slow to recognise dangers and confused about how to respond quickly to urgent situations. 

So we do nothing, until it is too late. Why?

Part of the problem is that we rely on cues we get from others — the all too famous curse of herd instinct.

In a well known experiment conducted in the late 1960s, psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley pumped smoke into a room in which their subjects were filling out a questionnaire. When the subject was sitting alone, he or she tended to note the smoke and calmly leave to report it. When subjects were in a group of three, they were much less likely to react: each person remained passive, reassured by the passivity of the others. 

Institutions, such as the government, are made up of people. Alas, they too fall prey to normalcy bias, often with devastating consequences. In the beginning of 2020, many countries downplayed the threat of a virus they knew to be lethal — hinting that our reaction to the virus will do more harm than the virus itself. 

For elected leaders, this situation presents unique challenges. If they institute lockdowns and the threat passes with minimum casualties, voters are likely to say that the leaders overreacted. Most leaders will give voters what they want — not what they need. So instead of taking proactive measures, countries chose to do nothing and hope for the best. This institutional hyporeflexia cost thousands of lives.

Normalcy bias and herd mentality are not the only cognitive partialities that lead us astray. The 2020 pandemic has uncovered a host of freakish biases that make us terrible at handling risk. 

Another mental shortcut is amnesia bias, a tendency to focus excessively on recent experiences. Sure, we have lived through many pandemics and epidemics. Tonnes of literature exists. We know and understand that epidemics shape societies in brutish, unimaginable ways. But while most of us know about the 1918 influenza epidemic or the more recent AIDS and ebola outbreak, we do not feel them viscerally. As time goes by, bad memories lose their jolt. 

Optimism bias is tricky to navigate. We exhibit optimism bias every time we think “this won’t happen to me”. “Yes, China has had to put millions of people in lockdown and thousands have died, but my country will not be next.” Before you know it, your country is next. And you’re unprepared. 

Was the COVID-19 crisis really unpredictable? Could we have prepared better?

In the past century itself alone, we saw 6 major epidemics where millions of people perished. I acknowledge that even foreseeable problems can be hard to prepare for. And when the problem is an epidemic, the unknowns rise exponentially. 

What disease? How it spreads? Where? When?

It’s a difficult puzzle to solve and the outcome extremely hard to predict. But achieving basic preparedness is not a colossal task.

In 2016, UK ran a simulation study, Exercise Cygnus, to estimate the impact of a hypothetic influenza epidemic on the British economy. Though the details remain classified, we know that the outcome revealed a glaring lack of resources. It was pointed out that in the face of a major outbreak, lack of ventilators and the difficulties of disposing off bodies would cripple the system. 

UK knew what would help, but the implications were largely ignored. Why were recommendations ignored in favour of system efficiency? Money might be a real issue, but do we really have to cut corners when it comes to people’s lives?

In the absence of a major health crisis in the past few years, France downsized its strategic PPE reserve. When the crisis did hit, its doctors and nurses found themselves utterly exposed and vulnerable. Who is accountable  for this lapse?

It is possible that the current crisis has you thinking that the world would change, that we would change. That governments will learn important lessons and be better prepared to tackle future epidemics.

That is extremely unlikely. 

As things often do work well, lessons learnt are quickly forgotten. We grow cynical about false alarms and governments remove safety nets. Small wonder then, in 10, 20 or 50 years, we are confronted with the next health crisis. And like ostriches, we again prefer to stick our heads in the sand. 


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