Forget panic and angry mobs. During disasters like COVID-19, all we want to do is help
|Toronto Star 06 Apr 2020 at 19:25|
WASHINGTON—A friend of mine was living in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001. After the twin towers fell, in the grip of the fear and anger and grief, he followed his impulses: he made his way on foot to Lower Manhattan, looking to help.
There, he was told that the best way for a writer to help was to stay out of the way. Thousands of other people who didn’t have emergency-response training but followed the same urge were told the same thing. When things fell apart, they wanted to do something helpful.
One thing many fictional epidemic stories have in common is a scene of angry people rioting outside a hospital or a government disease control centre. But that’s not what we’re seeing in real life, as the coronavirus exacts a worsening toll, and it’s something disaster research tells us we shouldn’t expect.
David DeSteno, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, says that when a disaster strikes, it’s rare to see panic, looting or other anti-social behaviour. “What we find is that in general, the greater percentage of people tend to engage in a kind of co-operative altruism. The phenomenon is called ‘altruism born of suffering.’”
While there have been instances of anti-social behaviour during crises, the opposite is much more common. “Whatever the extent of the looting, it always pales in significance to the widespread altruism that leads to free and massive giving and sharing of goods and services,” a 2008 study from the University of Delaware Disaster Research Center concluded.
DeSteno’s research suggests that such a reaction to adversity is built into human psychology: people who experience disaster or illness become more altruistic. “On average, those people become more compassionate and are willing to actually step up and engage with other individuals and help them when they’re in need,” he said.
This impulse to assist, rather than to lash out in panic when an emergency arises, can even cause problems of its own. Dr. Claude de Ville de Goyet, who wrote an influential paper entitled says natural disasters often provoke a rush to provide the wrong kinds of help. In a 2016 interview , he cited the “flood of foreign volunteers without any medical skills that frequently arrive unexpectedly and without advance notice.”
In a crisis like COVID-19, when we’ve been told the best way we can help is to stay home, it’s easy to see how the impulse to do take action can be counterproductive. Some have continued holding services, convinced group prayer is a solution. Social media is filled with stories of people holding street parties to rally spirits, raising the risk of infection. Even funerals, our great collective ceremonial responses to dealing with grief, have been sparks that ignite COVID-19 outbreaks .
We naturally want to get together and help in a crisis, even at a time when staying away from each other is essential.
“The normal way that we would want to help each other, or even compete with each other, is usually through social connection. That’s the thing we do typically to help people,” DeSteno said. And that is part of the psychological difficulty of isolation in this crisis.
One solution is surprisingly simple: Provide people with different ways to be involved.
This, DeSteno says, this is where being innovative can help. People in Florida are placing pictures of Easters eggs in their front windows to help kids hunt from a distance. Crowdfunding campaigns have sprung up to aid small businesses. DeSteno points to a Yale student who started an “ Invisible Hands ” delivery service in New York City, which delivers groceries to those who are most at risk.
“What’s important now is for innovators to find ways to open those channels, because people have those impulses to help,” he says. “COVID isn’t preventing those impulses from being there, but it’s keeping them bottled up. And I think that’s making people feel more helpless.”
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Another outlet may be to channel those impulses forward. As urgent as the situation is now, its catastrophic effects will be with us for quite some time. Another of the disaster myths that de Ville de Goyet has addressed is the idea that things go back to normal in a few weeks. “What we really see is that people don’t get back to normal in months and they don’t get back to normal (many times) even in years,” he said.
With experts predicting that pandemic’s fallout might continue for a year or more, that strong human impulse to help could be useful later — and for quite a while. We’ll continue have lots of time now to think of ways to help others, and a long time after the pandemic recedes when that help will still be needed.