Our nation has been dealing with COVID-19 for three months now and the nation-wide quarantine has been lifting one state at a time. As of the end of May, all fifty states have had some restrictions lifted and the states are reopening various establishments each week. It is nice to get out of the house and see friends again and visit places we have missed.
But this is supposed to be a new normal – a normal defined by social distancing, mask wearing, and lots of hand sanitizer. I don’t know about you, but this new normal only seems to be reaching certain people. As various sources have documented, many pools are packed, parks crowded, and protests filling streets (this last one for some good reasons).
I am sure the majority of people are still practicing recommended behaviors for safety, but this is a virus that only needs a small group of people to act as transmitters. Why are we not practicing the Centers for Disease Control recommendations universally?
Psychologists have demonstrated that many people are not good at estimating health risks. Witness the people who refuse get flu shots each year, don’t vaccinate their children, or smoke in spite of endless warnings. We think that we will be the George Burns who lives to 100 while smoking cigars for 86 of those years.
This article explores the way in which the human mind and culture, and in particular, college students and their campuses, are designed such they will most likely increase the spread of COVID-19 when the second wave of COVID-19, which will happen, arrives.
Learning to Alter Behavior
So if we can’t get people to take their health seriously, why can’t we appeal to their altruistic nature to protect the people around them? Sadly, it is just not that simple. Time and time again, disasters strike various parts of the world and efforts to fundraise for the people living there struggle to succeed. I remember a study a while back in which a U.S. oil spill was killing many sea animals. The study asked how much money someone would give if they knew 1,000, 10,000 or 100,000 animals had died. The results were not significantly different – the amounts went up slightly but came nowhere near the proportionality of the deaths. This is often referred to as Psychic Numbing. Our minds can’t fathom the size because it is so removed from us.
There was one factor, however, that significantly increased giving. When the organization told the story of one duck became trapped in oil, and showed video of the duck slowly dying, donations increased exponentially. What happened? The organization made the issue personal to the giver. Fundraisers call this the Identifiable Victim Effect.
In a similar vein, have you ever noticed that the people fighting most for certain issues are often people who have personally been impacted by that issue? One of my counseling professors used to say that “we actively master what we passively suffer.” Parents who lose children to suicide, drunk driving, or all sorts of unique medical issues become champions for these causes, raising millions to help others. Have you ever attended an American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life? If so, you will be hard pressed to find anyone there not touched by cancer in some form or fashion. This ability to impact donors based on a personal story is often referred to as Sympathy Bias.
Bringing this back to COVID-19, why are so many people ignoring social distancing and the need for facemasks? When they hear that 100,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19 their minds are Psychically Numb to this. But if they know of one friend or family member who suffered severely or died due to COVID-19, they take it much more seriously. This is the Identifiable Victim Effect. If they hear a story about someone who has lost a close friend or family member they are touched by the Sympathy Bias.
Thankfully, because so much of the nation responded quickly by staying at home, the deadly impact of COVID-19 was lessened, and therefore has touched less people. We know Tom Hanks, Madonna, and Boris Johnson had it, but most people have not been personally touched by the coronavirus.
And therefore, people have started think they won’t be impacted by COVID-19. In the last week, I have talked to friends who went to the dentist and the optometrist and at both places, only one person wore a mask. I have heard descriptions who walked on Baylor’s campus and saw no one wearing a mask. I went to Lowes Hardware and besides the employees, only a few people were wearing masks. When it was time to check out, I stood on a designated square 6 feet from the next person while others walked right in front of me to get in line. I finally figured out everyone was ignoring the floor marks.
“Those Who Cannot Remember the Past are Condemned to Repeat It”
This quote from George Santayana in 1905, best summarizes what most of the United States is going to experience in the coming months. One hundred and two years ago, the Spanish flu emerged in March 1918. It was similar to the seasonal flu in terms of symptoms and death rates. That summer the number of cases dropped significantly and much of the nation, if not world, held hope for the fall of 1918. Sadly, that summer was the calm before the storm.
James Harris, Ohio State University historian who studies both infectious disease and World War I, indicated that the fast spread of the Spanish flu in the fall “was at least partially to blame on public health officials unwilling to impose quarantines during wartime.” For example, it was known in Britain that a lockdown was needed to stop the spread of the virus but the need for military supplies outweighed the lockdown. One government leader was quoted as saying that “the relentless needs of warfare justified incurring [the] risk of spreading infection.”
Unfortunately, in 1918, the flu virus mutated and became much more deadly that fall resulting in almost 200,000 U.S. deaths in October alone (including my grandfather’s big brother who was 18 when he died). In fact, more people died due to the Spanish flu than both the Civil War and World War I.
Thankfully, there is no World War occurring right now but there is another problem that can be just as dangerous for the spread of the virus. In 1918 the economic engines of the United States were industrial – machinery, iron & steel, automobiles, and electrification of the nation. However, in 2020, the economy is significantly more service-based with retail, restaurants, theatres and other small businesses making up over 75% of employment (with industry at only 18%.)
During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, according J. Alexander Navarro of the University of Michigan’s Center for History of Medicine, “(the government) could shut down places of public amusement and not have the same type of impact on the local economy in 1918 because the manufacturing sector was so dominant. This is an economy that’s built on the service sector. So I think we’re in for a much greater and more severe economic impact today than we were in 1918.”
If Navarro is correct, the pressure that led many nations to err on the side of the wartime production needs over population protection from the Spanish flu, could be quite similar to the pressure in many nations today to maintain the massive service-based economy. In short, the economic survival of 2020 could be just as dangerous for the spread of COVID-19 as World War I was for the Spanish flu.
So what happens this fall? According to historians of pandemics, there are typically two options for the end of a pandemic. The first, medical, occurs when a vaccine or other medical intervention emerges that causes incident and death rates to drop significantly. The second ending, social, occurs when the fear of the disease fades and other priorities take precedence. Gina Colata, in the New York Times, explains the social ending as “an end can occur not because a disease has been vanquished but because people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease.”
Where Does This Leave College Students?
If you had to identify one group of people in the U.S. who think they invincible, want freedom from rules, and are generally left to their own to make decisions about their future, who would it be? The first group that comes to my mind are college students.
Psychologists like Dr. Gary Wenck tell us the reason college students feel invincible is that their frontal lobes are not fully developed yet (i.e. neuronal myelination is still occurring) and won’t end for women until they reach 25 and men until they reach 30 years old. Its our frontal lobes which help us best identify risky behaviors.
So we take these developing brains and pack them in to large residence halls, with typically 200 to 400 students, who often share bathrooms and roommates (a concept only a small minority of teenagers have experienced before coming to college).
We then tell these young adults that they are in charge of making decisions about their lives and provide them very few actual adults for them to see and interact with outside of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday (although very few have Friday classes in today’s college). The large majority of college students don’t even live on campus and are therefore free to operate however they want outside the ~15 hours per week they are in classes.
The result, for the almost 60% of students who graduate, can be transformative and lead to a lifetime of job satisfaction, social connections, higher earnings, and improved health. But this newfound freedom, absent many adult role models, and with still developing brains also leads to significant alcohol abuse, sexual assaults, and drug experimentation.
Most of the mistakes college students make impact primarily themselves. Skipping class, not sleeping enough, and abusing substances all often lead to poor grades. This may concern their families but not many others. This fall, however, a handful of students who make poor decisions could put the health and lives of thousands at the college, and millions in the nation, at risk. Secret parties in crammed rooms and apartments, ignoring self-quarantines after road trips, and refusing to wear masks are behaviors that could turn colleges into the new national hot spots.
Putting the Facts Together
The fact is, the new normal in the United States has not taken effect as many public health experts had hoped. There are thousands of people ready to return to the old normal and who refuse to wear a mask and keep their social distance. And the psyche of people is such that they are going to need more than encouraging to begin to implement the public safety standards needed to prevent a second wave of COVID-19. Descriptions of the millions infected and the thousands dead means little to humans designed to act when something personally impacts them. Last, but not least, this fall colleges will be home to over 20 million young people, most of them under the age of 25, who will enter environments where they are free to make decisions on their own and which may ultimately result in colleges becoming the new national hotspots for the second wave of COVID-19.
What should we do? I don’t want to be one of those people, often in higher education, who is insightful enough to poke holes in any theory but unable to offer palatable alternatives. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. The safest thing to do would be to shift to fully online teaching this fall. Why aren’t more colleges doing this? Study the colleges who are making this decision – you will find that the colleges who can afford to do this 1) have an almost unlimited supply of eager students (California State system), 2) teach students who are already only on campus a few hours a week (community colleges), or 3) have an unlimited supply of savings to use on the losses that will occur (Cambridge and Manchester in the UK). In short, the business model of most colleges cannot sustain any significant drop in students that an online fall semester might bring. So similar to WWI production outweighing Spanish flu protection, the economic survival of going online will put the over 4,000 colleges and universities in the nation at stake.
One option would be to do what many Americans have done and tap into savings that were protected for such a time as this. Living off our savings, or in colleges’ case, endowment, is a survival mechanism until we are able to return to the new normal. However, in families, the option to layoff or furlough family members is not a realistic option. It is, however, the option most colleges seem to be taking as layoffs and furloughs dominate the news significantly more than any additional draws from endowments. Endowment managers will be quick to explain that there many valid reasons they cannot or should not be skimmed from in order to retain university faculty and staff.
- Top 10 University Endowments (e.g. Harvard = $38 billion in 2018)
So the option I am left is to mirror nations like Korea, Germany, and Austria, who acted quickly, aggressively, and comprehensively to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Universities will need to decide if they are willing to challenge the perceived invincibility of many college students and create multi-pronged systems of safeguards and protection that curtail the college experience, but ultimately, keep people alive. Many students will not like this, but their alternatives are limited. Staying home potentially poses even more restrictions and options like travel or work are either even more dangerous, or difficult to get, respectively. The same way many 18 year olds who join the military learn the reality of subjugating self to the larger good, colleges will need to teach similar messages using a multi-faceted series of safeguards that protect our students and allow them to learn on campus.