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The Catch 22 paradox inherent in Covid-19

Posted on 7th April 2020 at 13:45pm

One year ago, I wrote a blog on the Catch 22 dilemma, where I tried to draw the attention of security and emergency management professionals to the problem of sharing information with the public during complex disasters, writes Lina Kolesnikova.

The blog was written in the aftermath of the Salisbury Novichok poisoning and was based on cases related to CBRN threats and crises. After publication I received many interesting comments and observations from colleagues around the world. Suddenly, one year later, during this coronavirus crisis, I found myself observing a large-scale illustration of the Catch 22 dilemma with new traits and interpretations.

Joseph Heller first coined the phrase ‘Catch 22’ in his classic novel of 1961 where the main character, Captain John Yossarian, found himself in a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ paradoxical situation. A member of the US Air Force, the only way for Yossarian to exempt himself from highly dangerous bombing missions would be a claim on the grounds of insanity. But, at the same time, pleading for exemption would actually be a proof of his sanity, as surely no one of sane mind would keep flying the missions – this was the only catch – hence, Catch-22.

Today’s coronavirus problem demonstrates this dilemma clearly. Since January 2020 we have observed governments around the world starting to inform their populations about coronavirus, relevant measures, partial or full lockdowns, further developments of events, analysis and considerations, etc. Every country has had its share problems finding the balance between alarming the population to make it understand that the situation is serious, and maintaining a matter-of-fact tone, letting the public know that ‘things are under control’ to prevent agitation and even social disorder.

Epidemic and pandemic spread of disease are very complex disasters. They test the entire gamut of a society’s abilities to cope with problems; they also test its overall resilience. The novelty of the disease, the absence of any proven protocols, medicine or vaccine, the general state of health systems – which are not designed, particularly in developed countries, for a massive influx of highly contiguous patients – have made for a situation developing from orange to red alert in many countries, in a matter of days.

Followed by ever-increasing numbers of victims and a steep rise in those infected, such progression has made it clear to most of the population that authorities might not be able to assess and predict developments accurately even in days, let alone weeks or months, leading to concerns whether the authorities have their hands firmly on the crisis management steering wheel.

The nature of threat has required the scientific community to step up with explanations and clarifications. And this in itself is complex, involving a demand for comprehensible and reliable information provision tailored suit different demographics: adults with different levels of education, children and young people, elderly people and more.

Most of the scientific interventions, we must admit, have lacked clarity and certainty, being qualified by ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ statements, which have further developed the general mood of fear among in some people or total denial among others. For most countries, the level of uncertainty has been high and there has been a lack of a real leadership, a leader who takes responsibility and brings all necessary parties together to arrive at a set of clear-cut sharp and comprehensible actions.

Meanwhile, scientists and virologists are not decision-makers. They are rarely able to present an actionable management plan with ‘what-to do’ programme at a scale of a region/country or a group of countries. Usually their explanations have not been quantitative, but rather qualitative and cover only nature of virus and, to some extent, outline few concepts along which the response can be constructed. At the same time, most official statements were initially rather optimistic and always relatively short. This again worked, as already suggested above, towards a Catch 22 dilemma, and as a catalysor for fake information from both ‘camps’ – the alarmists and the unconcerned.

If one does not provide enough and clear information in times of crisis, then be ready for alternative information to be created, intentionally or unintentionally, by others and even by the public itself.

In some countries, the first communication about confinement, self-isolation and social distancing was so unclear that many people went on to prepare to profit from a few extra non-working days, assuming that there was no urgency.  We might observe such behaviour of ‘neglect’ even after weeks of crisis. As some newspapers say: “People don’t understand…”.

At the same time all affected countries have experienced the domino effect visible at consumer sites (supermarkets, etc), when shelves were emptied by a tornado of buyers. While official and unofficial communications pulled the trigger on this development, it is the mass media that played a crucial role in these developments. While official sites typically reported that the disease was under close watch and control, warning about its fatality levels for the elderly, medical personnel started their own campaigns via social networks, presenting an entirely different picture, including the strong message that this illness affects the whole population, not just the elderly. And then the mass media reported heavily on empty shelves in the shops… encouraging further masses of people to clear the remaining supplies in shops, day after day.

Another cognitive problem comes from the fact that different countries have decided to take different and often opposite measures in regard to the coronavirus. We have seen various national approaches, from slowing down and flattening the curve to preserve the capacity of health systems, versus building collective immunity; we have seen strict and closer controlled confinement and self isolation, to simply maintaining ‘business as usual’.

Such misalignment of approaches reaches even further into other areas, helping to discredit official positions. For example, there has been a range of statements, from ‘everyone should wear masks’, ‘massive shortages of masks for various critical industries’ to ‘masks only for people who are ill’.

In some ways we must come to the reluctant admission that our public structures fall well behind the speed and far reach of social networks, bloggers and conspiracy theorists in communicating during the crisis.  

The Catch 22 dilemma is a fuller picture.

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