Covid-19: Understanding the new normal

5:49 pm on 14 April 2020

By Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw

Opinion - As New Zealand looks towards moving out of lockdown, fear and ambiguity remains. Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw* explores the public narratives we need to help us move into a 'new normal'.

Auckland's Devonport on the morning of 26 March, on the first day of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

Photo: RNZ / Nick Munro

In our house the past few days in lockdown has seen us move from a semi-professional circus act into something more like the fall of Rome. Infighting between members of the senate and a rioting mob are the least of it. To say we are looking forward to the lockdown coming to an end is an understatement. For those in much more challenging home situations it can't come soon enough. I am also fearful about what comes next.

Fear in ambiguous and dangerous situations is a well-documented human phenomenon, and it leads us to seek simple solutions. When this lockdown was first announced many people were relieved. The fear they were feeling in the face of a global crisis could be channelled into a single practical action: to go home and stay home.

As people in our government move to take us out of lockdown the ambiguity and fear remains. The strategies to manage Covid-19 from now until a vaccine is proven effective and safe, are less straightforward than a four-week lockdown. What we do know is that until that vaccine, the way we live needs to be drastically different to maintain the break we have put in the chain of infection these last weeks. Those changes need to continue to have public support, and support is built through understanding.

Do people collectively understand and support this long-term change, and more critically what a scientifically driven strategy will involve? Can we build tolerance of more ambiguity in a crisis?

*See all RNZ coverage of Covid-19

So far there has been a strong data led story from officials and people in the media. Case numbers, test numbers, deaths, recovery. The presentation of the data at the daily standup is reassuring in its simplicity. These numbers are the why of lockdown - proof we are breaking the chain of the infection. Yet facts and data won't explain to people how we will get through this journey when the way ahead is not mapped. Facts are just a character in a broader narrative needed to help people understand what will get us through.

If people and institutions who build the public's understanding of the Covid-19 response don't provide that story, people will fill in the space with existing understandings. And a common feature found across complex issues is that dominant understandings are not deep enough to support best decision making. Without a clear broader narrative, the risk is people in the public won't process the good evidence that is available. And deeper, more complex public conversations about that evidence in the light of what we value most will be submerged under the weight of misinformation, polarisation and public commentators' divisive strategies.

  • If you have symptoms of the coronavirus, call the NZ Covid-19 Healthline on 0800 358 5453 (+64 9 358 5453 for international SIMs) or call your GP - don't show up at a medical centre

Public understandings can be deepened through scientifically tested narratives. Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow built on years of social and cognitive science showing public information needs to account for our mental processing systems to successfully deepen people's understanding and encourage good decision making.

Auckland central on the morning of 26 March, on the first day of the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown.

Photo: RNZ / Simon Rogers

What then should public narratives focus on as we move further into the unmapped territory?

The antidote to fear is love and compassion. Leading with the facts to overcome fear of the unknown is risky when facts are difficult to come by, may contain gaps, and can change rapidly. Instead leading with what we do we know will help us get through this crisis will continue to be critical. We cannot get through this crisis, no matter what the science reveals, without a commitment to supporting each and every person to come through. It's all of us or none of us.

Jacinda Ardern is a skilled communicator in part because she talks so easily about that which matters most to human beings. However, in addition to talking about care and togetherness, it is time to start using some good old Kiwi ingenuity values.

As the strategies to deal with Covid-19 get more complex, the outcomes become more difficult to explain with simple case numbers, or models. What will help is reminding people how important innovation and creativity is to dealing with complex situations. It will increase people's tolerance for the inevitable changes in strategy, trials of different approaches, failures, and seemingly about turns that we know will be needed in the months to come.

Explaining complex issues rather than simply describing the problems or actions is another feature of narratives that deepen understandings. To explain in ways that work with people's fast thinking mental processing systems 'simplifying models' can be utilised.

Metaphors are one such model. Metaphors feature heavily in any crisis because a crisis is complex and hard to understand. Some metaphors are more helpful than others. War and disaster metaphors are unhelpful to deepening understandings of complex collaborative responses, though appealing to certain ways of thinking about leadership.

Metaphors which surface thinking about collaboration, innovation, creativity and trial and error, have more utility. Building a house, navigating a difficult journey. "Building the plane as we go" is probably unhelpful because if we screw something on the wrong way nothing good happens to the passengers on that plane.

There are many scientifically informed narrative tools that can surface productive thinking about complex and ambiguous situations, that help people to manage their fears in a crisis. Covid-19 is a complex global challenge, requiring the best of all of our collaborative responses. Narratives that embrace the essential features of endeavour and innovation will be a critical strategy to navigating the journey together.

*Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw is a public narrative researcher and co-director of The Workshop.

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