Coronavirus: Forget the science fiction movies, disasters actually make us better people

Popular fiction and cinema has told us what to expect when disaster strikes: society will crumble, the only law will be survival of the fittest, and our best option is to murder our next-door neighbour and roast them for dinner on the barbecue.

But 1984, Mad Max, The Handmaid's Tale, The Road, The Hunger Games, A Clockwork Orange, The Wall, Children of Men, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, the Mandibles: they're all wrong.

Not only that, say the experts: in times of crisis, history repeatedly tells us that we behave not just far better than we expect - but also better than we do in normal times.

However, every time we hit another crisis, we seem to forget the lessons of the past, and instead renew our subscription to what Dan Gardner calls the 'disaster myth'.

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Does that matter? Yes, says Gardner, a New York Times-bestselling author and senior fellow in Ottawa University's school of Public Policy and International Affairs, because it means in troubled times, governments the world over take the wrong approach.

During a crisis - such as a pandemic, or a natural disaster - governments often hide information, for fear a volatile public will panic. Actually, panic is rare. Instead, they should share the truth, and so build the trust of their citizens. 

For example, he says, right now, the Canadian government is wrongly keeping coronavirus death toll predictions secret, while the governor of the heavily-afflicted New York State, Andrew Cuomo is being lauded for his openness.

Author and academic Dr Dan Gardner, of the University of Ottawa, says governments should trust people to behave in times of crisis.
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Author and academic Dr Dan Gardner, of the University of Ottawa, says governments should trust people to behave in times of crisis.

"And you don't see civil disobedience breaking out in New York; what you see is New Yorkers taking it seriously, pulling together as people do, and as they did in 9-11," says Gardner. "In an emergency, we have to pull together and co-operate. We really do sell our species short."

'A SIGHT TO MAKE THE ANGELS WEEP'

December 1917. A French ship laden with trinitrotoluene, aka the powerful explosive TNT, collides with another boat in the harbour of Halifax, Nova Scotia. The resulting explosion leaves 2000 dead, 6000 injured, 10,000 homeless, some $35m worth of damage.

"Truly," wrote Samuel Henry Prince, "a sight to make the angels weep… the city ceased to be a city." 

Prince's study (Catastrophe and Social Change) of how Halifax rebuilt itself was one of the first real analyses of how society responds to disaster. 

In the film Children of Men, adapted from a PD James novel, a fertility crisis leads to the mass murder of the elderly. Fortunately, popular fiction does not parallel reality when it comes to disasters.
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In the film Children of Men, adapted from a PD James novel, a fertility crisis leads to the mass murder of the elderly. Fortunately, popular fiction does not parallel reality when it comes to disasters.

Prince found people co-operated, behaved well, were altruistic. "There has been a new sense of unity in dealing with common problems," he wrote.

And the revived Halifax was better in many ways: for example, it had a better healthcare system and improved leisure facilities like playgrounds, a stadium and a pool.

That pattern has been observed many times since by those in the specialised field of disaster studies, says Auckland University sociologist Steve Matthewman, who wrote a book on the sociology of disasters and is finishing a three-year research project on the Christchurch rebuild. "We are not nasty, selfish, individualistic creatures," he says. "We are helpful and altruistic."

The longevity of the Student Volunteer Army - seen here working on community projects in Kaikoura in 2019 - bucks the usual rules of disaster recoveries.
SAM PARROT
The longevity of the Student Volunteer Army - seen here working on community projects in Kaikoura in 2019 - bucks the usual rules of disaster recoveries.

Consider the Canadian musk ox, agrees Gardner. In times of trouble, they form a circle, using a ring of horns to warn off predatory polar bears. We're the same: "We pull together and we survive together, or we die. We have to work together."

Back in 1987, the British Prime Minister of the time, Margaret Thatcher, observed: "There is no such thing as society."

This week, her present-day successor and disciple, Boris Johnson, was moved by the coronavirus outbreak to declare: "There really is such a thing as a society."

We are not individuals, says Matthewman. "We cannot exist on our own," he says. "We are products of culture, we are socialised by other human beings, we can only exist in our world because of countless others who grow our food, make our clothes, build our shelter, deliver our news." And we can't get through events like coronavirus without co-operation.

In a disaster, official help isn't instantaneous: it takes time, and usually, it's our neighbour, even the anonymous stranger, who will bring help. Just think of all the individual acts of bravery in the Canterbury earthquakes. When search and rescue crews arrive, often from offshore, they are usually only there to do the first part of their title. 

The remains of a looted New Orleans pharmacy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, September 2005: but those who study disasters say such events are heavily over-emphasised and don't reflect society as a whole.
JESSICA RINALDI/REUTERS
The remains of a looted New Orleans pharmacy in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, September 2005: but those who study disasters say such events are heavily over-emphasised and don't reflect society as a whole.

Even in a pandemic, there's examples, even such small-scale heroics as delivering groceries to an elderly neighbour.

And have you noticed on your state-sanctioned walk around your neighbourhood that everyone seems much friendlier right now, more willing to smile and greet you? If you haven't, then at least you've seen the teddy bears in the windows.

John Drury, professor of social psychology at Britain's University of Sussex, calls it a 'disaster community'. Our shared experience of something like coronavirus gives us social solidarity, a feeling of being in the same boat. And we seek out emotional and practical benefits by organising groups together - even something as simple as a WhatsApp for your street. 

Even after the immediate disaster is over, says Steve Matthewman, we often find the structures of power aren't quite as strong as we thought so we have to keep helping ourselves. 

The best results can be initiated and delivered locally; again, Christchurch offers examples of missed opportunities by the state, and great grassroots ideas, such as the Student Volunteer Army.

"People are self-organising to support each other [in the Covid-19 world]," says Drury. "This always happens in disasters. There will never be enough professional responders to help all of us, so a lot of it will have to come from ourselves."

The goodwill effect, however, isn't usually permanent. People get exhausted and find it hard to keep that early spirit alive.

But not always. Nearly a decade after it sprung to life during the earthquakes of 2010-2011, the Student Volunteer Army remains the biggest show on Canterbury University's campus.

"It worked because I assumed it would, and everyone assumed it would, and everyone just did it," says its founder, Sam Johnson. That is, Johnson expected everyone would want to help - and that optimistic view of human nature meant most responded positively.

"I think it came from growing up in small-town New Zealand, where if things went wrong, there was no one coming to help - you had to help yourself," he explains. "I grew up on a farm, and even within the family doing harvest, if you broke something, you had to fix it yourself. 

"We saw that in Christchurch before, we see it now with this Covid - after a disaster, people are so motivated to help. You've got a very short window of time, and what I observed around the world is that institutions are terrible at responding to that surge in people wanting to help people."

Sam Johnson says he assumed people would do the work - so they did.
JOSEPH JOHNSON/STUFF
Sam Johnson says he assumed people would do the work - so they did.

Johnson's principle is simple: you give people permission to do what they feel they ought to do anyway. "Am I allowed to do that or not? You cut that crap out… not only are you allowed to do it, you are expected to do it. The next stage is how you support them to do whatever that is."

ELITE PANIC

So why has fiction got it so wrong for so long? Matthewman has two answers. One, he says, is that we have "been sold a lie for years: that we are selfish, when we are not."

The other is that popular culture often projects our fears - and a significant one is that society will collapse and we will turn on each other.

But really, that's probably not our fear at all: it's the fear of the elite. 

Auckland University academic Dr Steve Matthewman says basically, humans are pretty nice, and that doesn't change in a crisis.
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Auckland University academic Dr Steve Matthewman says basically, humans are pretty nice, and that doesn't change in a crisis.

Sociologists refer to a concept called 'elite panic', a phenomena where it's actually those at the top of society who spread stories about riots, looting and mayhem in times of crisis. This dates back a long way, says John Drury, but particularly to the 19th century, where "gentlemen scholars of a certain class saw the 'mass' as a threat to civilisation".

And yes, the media are to blame too. Sort of. We're guilty of what Gardner calls 'novelty bias' - but he points out that's a human problem, not one solely down to journalists. We are interested in things that are different, and exciting: so a looter post-Hurricane Katrina is much more exciting than a community working together to repair itself.

So, in the case of coronavirus, he says, "it's the one jerk who ignores the self-isolation rules and does something outrageous. He ends up in the news because he is breaking a social norm, the person who stays home doesn't end up in the news - but the thing is, there's millions of them."

Disasters, of course, don't affect people equally. The temperature was the same for everyone in a murderous 1995 heatwave in Chicago, but it particularly killed the elderly in poor, dangerous suburbs where they were afraid to leave their non-air-conditioned homes

One of John Drury's PhD students is researching the community response to the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in London. The fire - caused by poor cladding and exacerbated by inadequate safety precautions - wouldn't have happened to wealthier inhabitants, he thinks, and nor would their poor treatment afterwards. "That's why the community had to self-organise – to support themselves."

But that can be a powerful thing. Author Rebecca Solnit, whose studies of disasters began by researching the 1909 San Francisco earthquake, wrote that: "Disasters shake things loose. And the things we regarded as fixed and unchangeable can suddenly be changed."

In times of crisis, she argues, regular people can get organised and can alter society for the better. "And I've found a lot of desperate people... are actually often very hopeful because the alternative to them is truly terrible."

The Grenfell Tower fire showed disasters don't treat us all equally.
CARL COURT/GETTY IMAGES
The Grenfell Tower fire showed disasters don't treat us all equally.

In Christchurch, Johnson hopes that means coronavirus leaves behind a much more engaged society - he's certainly expecting lockdown to inspire a surge of volunteering. 

Of course, in more extreme circumstances that sometimes means the 'elite panic' is justified. But even then - people aren't attacking the bloke next door. 

Tzarist Russia in the 18th and 19th, for example, was beset by a series of plagues, and they usually brought mass rioting, but it was aimed at their incompetent and selfish rulers.  

"Authorities can make problems a lot worse by behaving stupidly," observes Dan Gardner. "But they can also make the situation a lot better if they appeal to our better angel."

The classic example, he says, is Winston Churchill's role in fostering the 'Blitz spirit' in wartime Britain by exhorting his citizens to work hard and do their bit.

"It was the message people wanted to hear: it was what they wanted to do. They wanted to believe they were part of something bigger than themselves."  

Jacinda Ardern's refrain of 'be kind' is a suitably Kiwi downbeat version of that message. Gardner, hailing from a continent given to a grander gesture, would add more flourish: "I would be saying it's hard staying at home - but you are making a sacrifice for the greater good. We should be talking to people in those terms: appealing to people's sense of idealism."

But even if the wheels begin to fall off for the world's governments as the coronavirus develops, we still have a long way to go before we start following the plotlines of our favourite apocalypse movies. 

Mel Gibson starred as a lone wanderer in Mad Max, but experts say its depiction of a post-apocalyptic world is  pure fiction.
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Mel Gibson starred as a lone wanderer in Mad Max, but experts say its depiction of a post-apocalyptic world is pure fiction.

"I've read about some of the worst epidemics," says Drury, "like the yellow fever, flu and plague pandemics many years ago, and none of them quite became a Mad Max situation. 

"People always organise collectively as that's the best way to cope."