The Corona Chronicles
Each of us is a citizen, bound in a unique moment of jeopardy.
The earthquake has happened but, for most of us, the tsunami has yet to come ashore.
The Coronavirus is an existential threat to the safety of our collective peoples, most notably our most wise (the elderly) and our most medically vulnerable (for the most part, the elderly).
Unlike China and Italy, Ireland has been gifted time to prepare, and we must use this time wisely.
Supporting the Irish people as we ramp up to take action are two forces writ large – our politicians and our medics. In both we now place our trust.
Politicians, oft mistrusted because of the point-scoring which the democratic process encourages, are tasked with determining the strategy of when a nation takes action, and how it will go about it. Theirs is the subtle orchestration of ‘the art of the possible’, be it in Wuhan, Wisconsin or Waterford.
Alongside them are the medics. Revered practitioners of the frontline, this is a unique moment in which we will lean on our medical community for their competence, experience and also their imagination.
Crisis requires resourcefulness alongside expertise. Seeing Trinity College Dublin bring forward final medical exams so we’ll have more qualified doctors available sooner gives me confidence. Totems of truth are sometimes more meaningful than the unfathomable whole.
I am neither politician nor medic. I can speak to neither with authority.
But there is a third force at play in this crisis in which I am expert. One which will mediate how the world’s citizens engage in, and ultimately overcome, the Coronavirus.
This is the force known as ‘story’.
Deciding on ‘the story’ is a responsibility carried by us all. How we frame and recount what is happening with Coronavirus will have a direct effect on the outcomes. Because stories transcend fact and get to meaning.
Now is a moment to pay special attention to the stories being told, and the one that you, personally, accept and take to your heart.
At the start of any crisis, nations are guided by their politicians, empowered to frame and help us understand what is happening.
An ashen-faced President Trump addressed the people of the USA last night. The framing of his remarks – The Indivisible Goliath (the USA) versus The Invisible Slayer (the virus) – was an attempt to infuse confidence and summon a can do American spirit. Trump spoke of the preparedness of his Administration, its proactive response so far, the failures of Europe, and an American ability to overcome.
Fighting words indeed.
But the tone of the man who, just one week ago, characterised Coronavirus as a party political sham, belied the noble phrasing emerging from his teleprompter.
It was remarkable to see the President of the United States stumble over his words, lose his breath as if by way of panic, and confuse the communication of his own decisions (the movement of people and not goods between Europe and USA being what is now affected). It was a salutary and dissonant thing to see a 73-year-old man do all of this, while explaining that the elderly are most at risk.
The ‘story’ I garnered from Trump is sobering. He has not yet got his act together. His job is to lead but for the moment he is feigning leadership.
Not a good start. But nor is it dispositive. Trump may bounce back in Round 2. He is adaptive. Many races won have begun poorly.
Then I look to our own Irish leader, Dr. Leo Varadkar. You know, the politician who himself is a medic and is therefore uniquely qualified to set the tone of our national discourse. Oh yes, he’s in the USA to attend a cancelled shamrock ceremony for St Patrick’s Day.
The story is important. The story cannot unravel. But what is the story?
Storytelling is not about the decision, it is about how the decision is told.
In this regard, there are some themes which may help us, ordinary citizens, to properly decode our new CoronaWorld which we are temporarily forced to inhabit.
(a) Pay attention to how the story is framed: In order to garner action from the Irish people, or any population, we need to feel invested in why our behaviour must change. Appeals which are made in a clinical, individual manner are perfunctory guidelines, too easy to ignore.
The effective framing of stories must embrace emotion: explaining why we act for others and not just ourselves, appealing to a deeper sense that there is a right and wrong way to act.
It’s not that it’s cute to elbow-tap someone; it’s irresponsible to shake their hands.
Watch how the story shifts from how we protect ourselves to how we must protect others. The more it does, the more effective it will become.
(b) Disparity is the enemy of collective action: That we are ‘in this together, as equals’ is a critical aspect of how the Coronavirus story will unfold.
Lombardy has given us evidence to what happens when a region is isolated, and separated from its own nation. The Northern Italy shutdown triggered automatic panic to escape restrictions on behalf of ordinary people, spiralling the virus into other parts of Italy. There will be more unintended consequences. These are early days.
The Italians, by moving to full nationwide lockdown, have now demonstrated that imposing restrictions equally will bring a population along the journey in a more cohesive manner.
We are about to discover an essential truth in the proposition of a united Ireland. Because our island must act together. We cannot have Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland at odds with each other, pursuing differing restrictions. Human behaviour will not permit it. Like the Italians, we will spring for freedom. In any case, the virus will not heed it.
The story on our island must be told as one indivisible whole – equal, with vested interest in acting together. It is also the story we will tell ourselves.[It will be important that politicians respect our rallying around unity, and not exploit it for their own purposes. From such yarn are dictators woven.]
(c) Meaning will be explained by individual stories, not statistics: When Angela Merkel announced that 60%-70% of the German people may contract the virus, it was shocking truth-telling that was simultaneously devoid of meaning.
If only we had a Tom Hanks to tell us what it really means. But wait. We do. Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson, have unfortunately contracted Coronavirus and are now quarantined in Australia. Their story is notable only because it is first. Many thousands will follow, as the virus wends its way to my figurative doorstep, and to yours.
Although the first chapter of the world’s Corona Chronicles is narrated by the politicians, the narrative will be carried forth by our own personal stories, reflected by a media which for once will find most of its drama in the facts. The story is about us. It is ours to shape.
(e) Winning young adults’ hearts and changing their behaviour is critical: The young are least personally affected by the virus, although this medical fact may evolve. The result is that they are constitutionally programmed to override the narrative, and to live with an abandon which means they will carry the virus to, and infect, others. This will be short-lived. A Corona Greta will emerge, perhaps: fighting for our collective now, not our collective future.
In military moments of national crisis it is young men, through conscription, who mobilise their spirit and lives in defence of a nation. The story we now tell must demonstrate to young people how much our elderly need them right now. And how vital they are to the story that unfolds.
(d) Resilience will subdue mania, though not forever: The tsunami is arriving into port. We must now move to the high ground of action. Scaremongering (or its reverse, denial) are unhealthy for our herd.
You may have seen footage of quarantined residents in Wuhan calling out messages of solidarity from open windows in high-rise apartments. You will recall the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ campaign of the British Government at war. Italy’s grounded citizens are drawing pictures of rainbows of hope, and pasting them on their windows. ‘Tutto Andrà Benne’ – all will be well.
We will invent stories to keep ourselves leaning in to the task, seeking to re-find our balance in this temporarily crazy world. But stories alone won’t do it. We need to make progress towards a solution. And then this progress too becomes a critical story that must be judiciously told.
If nations do nothing, this invidious Covid may lead them to the abyss. But action is still in our gift. We will do something. We can yet change the course of the virus’ progress and of our communal destiny.
This is a unique moment for us to co-create a solution. Politicians, medics, citizens together – bound by the action we take and the stories we tell.
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