A few weeks ago I wrote an article about preparing for the predicted COVID-19 pandemic. I received quite a bit of feedback on it — many supportive but also a fair number of comments in the realm of “this is all overblown.”
Well, if that first article was written in the calm before the storm, this article appears to be going out just as the storm is starting to rage. Society seems to be grinding to a halt as we collectively figure out how to respond to the threat of this new virus. If you feel scared, you’re not alone. This can feel like new and unknown territory.
Emergencies, however, are not unusual. Risk is something we must all live with and manage. Despite knowing this, however, it’s common for many of us to avoid preparing for emergencies and, subsequently, react with either denial or panic when facing sudden, high-stress situations.
And while our attention is focused on the spread of COVID-19 right now, we should not forget about the other risks we face in our lives. Perhaps we can look at the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to get a better grasp on our individual self-reliance, not just in what actions we take to keep ourselves safe but also the mental strength we must employ when confronting an emergency. Our objective is to always stay alert and honest with ourselves about risks, and when the time comes for action we need to be move with purpose, not panic.
First, it’s important to discuss what happens before emergencies. As former U.S. Marines Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley point out in “Left of Bang,” our actions before an emergency strikes have the largest impact on keeping us alive.
One way we increase our survivability is by staying prepared. At the individual level, this can boil down to situational awareness. The U.S. military frequently uses a color coding system developed by Lt Col Jeff Cooper’s to help define situational awareness. The colors are intuitive: white, yellow, orange, red. Most people spend the majority of their time in white, blissfully unaware of anything happening outside their immediate area. To stay safe, however, we ought to be in yellow - aware of our surroundings but not to such an extent that it prevents us from conducting our many daily tasks.
It’s not easy to be in condition yellow. It takes discipline. Training and experience help, but even highly trained military personnel can struggle to stay in that condition yellow 100 percent of the time.
Situational awareness doesn't give us the power to predict specific developments, but it does allow us to sense growing danger. In the case of COVID-19, it would have been impossible to predict the specific type or timing of the disease, but we did have plenty of warning and information about the risk of a new pandemic developing. The previous appearance of contagious viruses like H1N1, SARS, MERS, Zika, and Ebola provided indicators we might face a more widespread viral pandemic.
How many of us thought about our own preparation for a pandemic and the social distancing it might require? How many of us took early action to prepare ourselves after reading news about a new coronavirus spreading in Wuhan, China? Good situational awareness requires we not just observe a new risk, but also change our behavior in response to the risk.
There is also one more level of situational awareness: condition black. This is the point at which a body’s physiological response surpasses 175 beats per minute. In condition black, we stop processing the situation around us. Our actions become ineffective; they could even be called senseless. Being in condition black means you're not helping yourself or anybody around you.
Cooper’s levels apply to the individual, but it’s not hard to see parallels in group behavior. Some of us may be overreacting to the threat of COVID-19, spending thousands to stock up on supplies without thinking through what we actually need in this moment. Our actions can become ineffective. As fear dominates our collective consciousness, some of us may even start believing conspiracy theories or scientifically inaccurate information, allowing our actions to become senseless.
It’s easy to see why we might overreact. It’s a form of panic, and in an emergency nothing is more common or more deadly. As Laurence Gonzales put it in Deep Survival, the first rule of survival is not to panic. Unfortunately, only 10-20% of untrained individuals stay calm in a true emergency. In Unthinkable, Amanda Ripley charts out our “disaster personalities,” spending quite a bit of time on panic. Panic usually sets in after we experience denial and fear. Once we realize a danger exists, we know we need to take action. Quite often, that action can only be described as panic.
As relayed by Ripley, panic is most likely to occur when the following three conditions are present: we feel trapped, helpless, and isolated. I think we can all relate to those feelings right now.
So how to overcome panic? The first step is as simple as stopping and taking a breath. The mantra is “slow is fast.” Bring that heartbeat down - figuratively or literally - by giving yourself some time to process the situation. The second step is to make a plan. It doesn’t have to be comprehensive, but make it a real plan. Just knowing you are taking action will bring your stress levels down. If you’re deciding what to stock up on while you're at the store (probably based on what other people are buying), then you are not making a plan. What do you need to navigate your personal situation? Your needs will be different.
The truth is, we ought to always be planning for emergencies. And being prepared is not about spotting an emergency and then immediately responding to it. We stay prepared by doing small things all the time. Instead of spending $1,000 at Costco because COVID-19 hit our community, we are better off spending a little extra on each trip to the grocery store to ensure we have durable food items (canned goods, rice, beans, etc) well stocked in our pantry.
It’s also important to realize that we live with many threats and dangers every day. We take action, individually and collectively, to deal with those dangers. Driving is dangerous; in fact, it’s the leading cause of accidental death in America’s youth. Fires are dangerous, killing over 3,000 people per year. And what kills far more people than fire? Poison.
I don’t list out all these threats to induce fear, but rather to show we all bravely face risks every day! And we do pretty good at it -- Americans still live to an average age of 79 years. We should strive to give each risk the respect it deserves, but within the context of all the other risks. And we should always keep in mind that we have some control over our own response and ability to survive.
The initial data about COVID-19 is definitely concerning. Its mortality rate appears high (higher than chicken pox, much less than typhoid) and its appears fairly contagious (more than seasonal flu, much less than measles). There is no vaccine yet. It’s understandable we all feel fear. But calm research, deliberate planning, and focused action help ensure our actions don’t stray into the panic territory.
How can we help ourselves? Seek out good information from experts, like these updates from the American College of Emergency Physicians or these insights from Harvard Medical Clinic. We should be calm and purposeful (remember, slow is fast!). But just gathering information about a risk is not a plan. Information is not magical. Information must be put into context for our individual situations, then crafted into a plan, and then carried out in calm, deliberate action. Purpose, not panic.
And, hard as it may seem, we can’t forget about other risks even as we confront COVID-19, nor our ethical obligations to the community. As BJ, the Mountyn Company’s resident (retired) Air Force survival expert put it:
Perhaps one aspect of this whole exercise - if we can look at the COVID-19 issue as a problem to work through - is one of getting a slightly better grasp on our individual self reliance. Can we do things for a little while (3 days, 7 days, two weeks?) without any help from anyone else if need be. Can we cook three palatable meals a day for several days in a row while taking care of someone who isn't feeling great? And then stay a few more days with just your family unit or group, whatever that looks like, not only to avoid getting further exposed to COVID-19 but because your normal supply chain just isn't up to normal speed yet? This challenge is a lot like the days after a heavy snow or tornado. And if you are in one of those zones where nothing bad ever happens, and it is always sunny and warm, then welcome to becoming more self reliant. COVID-19 just became that event that never happens. And here is the real upside. We need you to be more self reliant even if only a little bit. Because your community may not call on you today, or tomorrow, but you're needed as part of the fabric which makes this whole country work. Do a little bit now and see what it feels like to be able to help out yourself, and maybe a neighbor when the time comes.