Ilmar Raag: Human life in a crisis of values

Ilmar Raag. Source: Vladislava Snurnikova/ERR

What we are seeing with the coronavirus is that there are too few deaths for people to be able to relate through personal experience. At the same time, crisis leadership does not offer a specific enough frame of reference for expectations to be managed. Fed up, society will take the initiative of generating meaning away from the government, Ilmar Raag finds in Vikerraadio's daily comment.

Allow me to start by giving two comparisons. USA lost a total of 2,420 people in Afghanistan over 18 years. A week ago, it took New York just three days to produce as many coronavirus deaths. The second example comes from France where every single day of the second week of April, COVID-19 claimed more lives than terrorism had over the past 30 years.

What use are these comparisons?

Do they make it possible to say that foreign wars are less deadly than domestic viruses? So what?

The aim of all such comparisons is to lay down a frame of reference that helps explain and justify our choices, which is the dimension in which we have now reached the second phase of the crisis at hand. And we have a problem.

We do not know how the crisis will be managed from here on out

We, the public, do not know how this crisis will be managed from here. One of the lessons of the current crisis is that people are constantly changing in the higher echelons of the state, meaning that institutional memory is periodically disrupted. Current top politicians and public servants no longer know the best practices agreed on ten or even just five years ago and are often reinventing the wheel instead.

Allow me to elaborate. Any crisis should theoretically warrant the creation of two headquarters – one to react to current events and another to work on the long-term plan. The latter needs to formulate the end state of the entire process that is measured using observable criteria.

The ideal end state of the crisis at hand could be a situation where we have not seen a new case of the coronavirus for a month, unemployment is at 7 percent and the number of police and rescue calls has not grown by more than  5 percent year-over-year.

Of course, every such indicator would include a number of other factors, but that does not matter right now. What matters are the steps we take to achieve that end state. Let us refer to them as phases in which different measures are implemented so that the switch from one phase to the next is also based on fixed indicators.

If the main task of the first phase of the crisis was to get the spread of the virus under control, a good indicator based on which to conclude it would be a situation where the number of people hospitalized and those in need of intensive care has not grown for two weeks. This leads us to the second phase of overcoming the virus the main task in which is to strike a balance between containing infection and restarting the economy.

The trick here is maintaining restrictions only for as long as necessary to avoid a second uncontrollable wave of the virus after they are lifted. The important thing is that containing the second phase also requires certain indicators to be hit or relevant efforts to be made.

And here is where we have a problem. Namely, that we do not know based on which figures the state plans to conclude this phase. It would likely coincide with lifting the emergency situation altogether. But it is very difficult to support the government in a situation where society has not such knowledge.

We come to a classic problem in strategic communication where poor leadership is keeping society from being mobilized in full. People are willing to suffer a lot if they have been made stakeholders and told upon reaching which result their sacrifice will end.

True, it is possible for the government to consciously decide not to publish certain indicators in situations where the hypothetical opponent would try and affect their performance.

A famous example of this comes from the 2005 Paris unrest when the police reported how many cars were burned down in a single day. This created a kind of contest between gangs of different districts that proceeded to see who could burn down the most cars in a day, with the winner declared on the evening news.

Heads of media publications and the police reached a rare agreement on that occasion to stop publishing that indicator that quickly resulted in the number of car fires decreasing notably.

Was the long plan not considered at all?

Our crisis is different as we expect the whole of society to be equally invested in reaching the necessary goals and no small group has enough influence to alter trends reflected in great masses of data. This means that the public and the government should ideally operate in the same information space and we should know based on which indicators the government will decide to lift various restrictions.

Real life has been somewhat different in Estonia. The first thing that baffled me was that news of the Government Office working on an exit plan only broke four weeks into the crisis. What was being done until then? Did we not even consider the long-term plan before?

I then proceeded to listen to debate and talk shows throughout the weekend to learn based on which indicators the progression of the crisis is analyzed. It turned out that generally well-informed journalists had no knowledge of specific targets on any of the radio shows.

They knew that indicators included the number of hospitalized patients or the public's mental fortitude for putting up with crisis measures but had no knowledge of specific landmarks or goals therein. I could not find specific targets even when I visited the website. While different ministers have offered different indicators, because their messages lack unity, these have rather been political solos.

Instead, we are seeing ministers promise the emergency situation will end at point in time x – for example, in mid-May or toward the end of it, while time has not been highlighted as a relevant indicator anywhere. In reality, we cannot plan our actions based on time because recent temporal forecasts have been inaccurate and because viruses care nothing for the calendar. Therefore, all temporal promises are mere speculation. At least until they are tied to clearly observable indicators.

Let us be blunt – it makes it look like the government is making decisions based on gut feeling and lacks or has been unable to agree on a plan that could be communicated to people.

While the government is in the middle of an exercise in indecisiveness, another inevitable process is unfolding that might end up running the government if allowed to take its course. Namely, that societies all over the world are adjusting to the virus.

The April 17 report of international media monitoring program Talkwalker suggests that mentions of COVID-19 are falling in both social and so-called old media everywhere in the world. The report reveals that while mentions are down 18 percent on news sites, the decline on social media, where people shape their own choices, is 25 percent compared to last week.

The same trend is reflected in the Government Office's public opinion poll where the number of people in favor of stricter measures has been cut in half, while the number of people seeking less stringent measures is growing.

I can see a well-known psychological phenomenon happening on social media where how different people interpret the same scientific paper changes based on what the reader desires to read into it. Everything is moving in the same direction it did during the coverage of terrorist attacks in 2015-2016. It simply stopped being of interest to people at a certain point because there were too few victims for people to feel directly threatened.

We can also see regarding COVID-19 how there are too few deaths for people to relate through personal experience. At the same time, crisis leadership does not offer a specific enough frame of reference for expectations to be managed. The void created in this manner is filled with altered attitudes. It is an inevitable process, like summer following spring before turning into fall. Fed up, society takes the initiative in terms of creating meaning and the government loses it.

What all of this means is that the subject matter of the second phase of the crisis is the reappraisal of the value of human life. After all, we have settled for a certain number of traffic deaths despite constant efforts at raising awareness. The frame of reference is what matters.

I once met a village elder in Mali, Africa who said that his two wives have given him 24 children 11 of whom are still alive. Let us try and imagine the life of that man who loses a child every other year to Malaria or something else.

After a while, you simply do not have the strength to see those deaths as irreversible tragedies and begin to see them as part of the inevitability of this world. From where we can jump to the rhetorical question of whether it makes sense to get riled up over wars when even the rather harmless COVID-19 kills more people.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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