Scenes from a Pandemic, Volume 4 – Telling the Stories

I’ve been reminded of a few stories from Hurricane Katrina that you probably heard, even though you probably didn’t hear all of the facts, revealed later, about what was actually happening. Facts are another antidote to anxiety.

You may have heard about survivors shooting at rescue helicopters, the “descent into savagery.” Police, National Guard, and Coast Guard flew thousands of hours, combined, of rescue missions after Hurricane Katrina. How many bullet holes were found in their aircraft?

Zero. Not a single hole was reported. What was reported at the time as irrational and aggressive acts by the citizens of New Orleans is now interpreted as clumsy and misguided attempts to summon help (Fink, 2013).

You may have also heard about what happened at the New Orleans Superdome, where about 9,000 residents and 550 National Guard members sought refuge. They were trapped by flood waters, nobody getting in or out, and there was no cell phone service, no way to communicate with the rest of the world. The chief of police went on national television to say that they were “raping babies” in the Superdome, another story of a descent into savagery. When the National Guard assembled a convoy to relieve those citizens and soldiers, the Guard brought hundreds of body bags. How many did they need?

Six. There were four natural deaths, one overdose, and one suicide (Fink, 2013). I’m not saying that the Superdome was a good place to be after Hurricane Katrina, but the massacre, the carnage, the horror that was shouted to the world, with no facts to support those claims, they didn’t happen. Those stories were wrong.

We need stories. We tell them to ourselves, to organize and make sense of the world. We use stories so that we know what is expected of us and what to expect from others. Dr. Aaron Beck, the founder of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, called the stories cognitive schema. I suspect that there is some overlap between that term and what philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called schema of intelligibility, stories that make sense of things that don’t actually make sense. Relax, this is as egghead and ivory-tower as I will get in this post.

We are scared and uncertain right now. The stories that we used two weeks ago, even as recently as March 13, to tell us what to expect, how to be safe, how to act, those stories no longer work. We’re not sure what to expect, and the problem is complicated by the incremental improvements in our understanding of COVID-19 and the changes in the regulations that follow from those improvements. We can derive comfort, and save mental energy, from routines and habits, and hand sanitizing seems to be nearly automatic for most of us already, but what about a daily routine? What day in the last week has been the same as the day before it?

So we need stories, and the expectations keep changing. Let’s look at some of the stories that we have heard so far.

Toilet paper

This one has been a meme for awhile and is nearly trite already. Were there families buying 4 30-packs of TP about a week ago? It might have happened. Stores starting setting limits on purchases pretty quickly, and I don’t know of any specific examples reported from good sources, but they might be out there, and it might have happened.

I bought my 30-pack two weeks ago. I was running out, and under typical circumstances, I might have waited, but with the virus spreading and anticipating increasing restrictions, I bought a bit earlier. I suspect that this is what happens, with snow in the forecast or a dangerous virus spreading. An external event causes a large number of people to check their inventories of important items – and yes, that includes TP – around the same time, triggering shortages that trigger additional purchases. If an item is scarce, it will be perceived as valuable, even necessary. If you can’t find something that is normally there, you’re going to think that you really need it, because other people may know something that you don’t know, and you will try to get this item, making someone else think that they really need it. It all makes sense.

By the way, this pandemic is expected to last from 12 to 18 months before it burns out (Crimando, 2020). That doesn’t mean shortages of everything, doesn’t mean the current level of restrictions the whole mean, but no matter how much toilet paper you have, it won’t be enough to get you through COVID-19. The supplies will catch demand and stocks will restock – I saw milk at Giant on Tuesday, just sitting there for anyone to buy. I’m still not looking for eggs, even though I make a damned good omelet, but I can’t share it with you for the time being.

There’s another element to the story about toilet paper, or any other story that you hear, that is worth considering. Who is the villain in these stories, and what do the stories tell us about the villains?

Nobody took a public transit bus to Costco and emerged with 4 30-packs of toilet paper and loaded them back onto the bus for the ride home. Not possible. Toilet paper is one of those items that gets cheaper when you buy it in bulk, especially at a warehouse store.

Listen for the story behind the story, like the ones that were told of New Orleans. Treat these stories like ethnic “jokes” that tell us something about what happened and more about how the teller perceives the person in the story. Think before you believe and consider before you share.

Non-emergency 911 calls

This is another story that has been reported widely, people making 911 calls to report neighbors coughing or sneezing. It’s coming to us as a story about panic. I actually read one account of this phenomenon, though. A county dispatch center reported 4 calls like this in one week. How many non-emergency calls does that center take in a typical week? That number wasn’t reported, but you can ask any first responder you know about how many non-emergency calls come through in a week. I will bet that it’s more than 4. Of course we don’t know the details of these 4 calls. If they were all from one person, that suggests a scared and confused person, or maybe they were all about one person, who might have been sick and not asking for help.

Here's a link to a short Youtube video about non-emergency calls that had nothing to do with COVID-19. People call to report spiders, check that their phones are working, are looking for new spouses, and complain that a particular fast food place does not have what they want. That happens all of the time but it doesn’t usually make the news.

We don’t know what happened with these non-emergency calls about COVID-19 and we are not going to find out, but we are supposed to assume that this means that people are panicking. It could have been panic, but it also could have been legitimate concern about someone who needed help. We don’t know.   Panic is possible, and it could get to be more likely as this pandemic progresses (Crimando, 2020), but panic is rare. It’s also exciting, a staple of movies and television. For journalists, it’s a way to illustrate fear, like the people beating each other with wine bottles at Walmart last week, which sounds like another descent into savagery story, but how often does something like that typically happen at Walmart? Are rich people beating each other with wine bottles? If they are, you will never hear about it. 

Stories fill in the blanks. In the absence of necessary information, we create it, and what we create reflect our perceptions and biases. There is a saying to the effect of, “There are no natural disasters.” In other words, there is always a human element, some activity or inactivity that at least contributes to or aggravates the event. What we tell ourselves and others about what is happening are also part of the disaster.

As for me, I was out yesterday on a short deployment with a country response team. We took inventory of the supplies in a medical response trailer, organized and repacked it, made it ready to go when it’s necessary, like it probably will be. It was a beautiful spring day, warm and breezy, and it was good to be out with a group of volunteer and paid disaster professionals. By the way, we all wore gloves and none of us wore masks and we talked like normal people. It was a good way to spend a few hours. 

On the way home, I checked out one of my favorite state parks. I didn’t find locked gates at the parking lots, though all of the buildings were closed and that’s understandable. There were a lot of people out walking the trails, many in large groups. Nobody wore gloves or masks and there was a typical level of joking and small talk with strangers. When a puppy absolutely needed to check me out, we all stopped and let her do that. There was some general caution, sure, but no terror.

I made one more stop on the way home, a small family-owned pharmacy. My allergies are starting to kick up, specifically in the form of watery eyes. That’s not a typical symptom of COVID-19, but it makes it much harder for me to avoid touching my face, and that creates an actual risk for me, so I bought allergy eye drops. It seemed like a good investment in keeping myself healthy. I got to talking and joking with the staff and other customers, except for the one person who wore a mask. Everyone suspected of having COVID-19 is supposed to be self-quarantined, and this person wasn’t coughing, and this person seemed to be healthy overall. Again, the mask is scary, a signal that this person is sick, and annoying, a waste of needed supplies. I may have accidentally coughed once or twice while I walked past this person, but if I did, that didn’t cause any terror. 

Some things have changed forever and some things have changed for the time being. This is a frightening and difficult time and it will not end soon, but it will get better in the weeks and months to come. We are going to rebuild our way of doing things and we get to choose what parts from the past we keep and which no longer suit us, that we want to discard.

References and suggested reading

Crimando, S. (2020). Are you ready for the next pandemic? Behavioral Science Applications LLC

Fink, S. (2013). Five days at Memorial: Life and death in a storm-ravaged hospital. New York: Penguin.

Solnit, R. (2009). A Paradise built in hell: The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster. New York: Penguin.