By Reinaldo Iturriza – April 11, 2020
Why has the vast majority of Venezuelan society responded by abiding by a voluntary quarantine, a circumstance that has been decisive in controlling the spread of the coronavirus? What does this tell us about what we have been and can be as a society? Doesn’t our collective response speak very eloquently about who we really are?
In an article published on March 13 in Spain, one of the European countries most affected by the pandemic, Javier Salas summarizes as follows the guidelines of various social psychologists to effectively deal with the emergency situation: “Clear leadership, precise instructions, calls to collective action, because in community we feel better, and avoid uneasiness and doubt as much as possible, because they provoke the peculiar behaviors that we have seen these days (in some countries), such as compulsive buying of toilet paper” (1).
Salas cites an article written by English social psychologists Stephen Reicher and John Drury, who emphasize the need to collectivize, rather than personalize, the response to the pandemic: “If we prioritize the individual, then the strongest rather than the neediest will win … Instead of personalizing the problem, we must collectivize it. The key question is not so much ‘Will I survive’, but rather ‘how do we overcome it’. The emphasis should be on how we can act to ensure that the most vulnerable among us are protected and losses to the community are minimized; after all, from a collective perspective, a loss for one is a loss for all ”(2).
Based on their research in emergency contexts, Reicher and Drury conclude that “when people stop thinking in terms of ‘me’ and start thinking in terms of ‘we’ … they begin to coordinate, support each other and ensure that the those most in need receive the most help.” It is what they call “a sense of shared identity.” Sometimes this “arises from the mere fact of experiencing a common threat. But the messages are also important. When a threat is framed in group rather than individual terms, the public response is stronger and more effective.” Hence the importance of the messages that appeal to “the moral obligation to avoid imposing risks on others”, and the ineffectiveness of the messages addressed to the individual: “Take care of yourself!” (3).
On episodes of “panic,” and more specifically on “panic purchases,” such as compulsive shopping for toilet paper, Reicher, Drury, and Clifford Stott seriously question the long-held idea “that it is the blind and competitive search for self-interest which turns disasters into tragedies.” They argue that “the concept of ‘panic’ has been largely abandoned by those who study disasters, since it does not describe or explain what people do in such situations. People generally do not act irrationally or selfishly in crises. Rather, recent research emphasizes how experiencing a common threat or danger can lead people to develop a sense of shared identity or ‘togetherness’ and, when this happens, leads to greater cooperation and support for others.”
They emphasize: “While some may act selfishly, many people behave in an orderly and measured manner, structured by social norms. They help each other, they hope, and they help not only family and friends, but strangers as well. In fact, there are times when people die not from an excess of selfishness, but from falling behind in caring for others ”(5).
Again, they underscore the importance of messages in emergencies: “The emergence of shared identity in a crisis (and of a more effective response) can be fostered by addressing the public in collective terms and urging them to act for the common good. Conversely, shared identity (and effective responses) can be weakened by creating divisions and inducing competition between people.” Thus, for example: “In a context where people are asked to prepare for possible self-isolation for an extended period, stories about others in the community who are out of control and who buy excessive amounts of a valuable resource, only create a sense of ‘everyone on their own’ or ‘run for your life’. Besides, it makes it completely reasonable for people to go out and buy those resources for themselves and this is compounded by the images of empty shelves illustrating the cost if one delays the purchase. All in all, if you are persuaded that your neighbors are irrationally buying (say) toilet paper, then it is not ‘panic’ to go out yourself and buy toilet paper before it runs out. It is a completely reasonable answer according to the information that one has available. In any case, it would be foolish not to respond” (6).
Summarizing, the notion of “panic” not only has no scientific basis. Furthermore, it is deeply damaging: “Stories that use the language of ‘panic’ help to create the same phenomena that they condemn. They help create the selfishness and competitiveness that turns sensible preparations into dysfunctional storage” (7).
The analysis of Armando Rodríguez, another of the social psychologists consulted by Javier Salas, largely coincides with that of his English colleagues. Salas writes: “When we see people running in panic, we run with them: we are designed for contagion in emergency situations. So when we don’t know what to do and someone reacts by grabbing toilet paper, there is an immediate imitation effect. “If they show us that this is the escape route from the emergency, and they tell us that others are monopolizing that route irrationally and selfishly, the reaction is to dive in so as not to lose that route myself,” explains Rodríguez. “When there is no social norm, we react erratically imitating, because we know that the other is having the same emotions as we are,” he adds. Rodríguez concludes: “We do not become voracious, violent or hysterical but only when we provoke a self fulfilling prophecy.”
For Reicher, Drury and Stott, “The behavior we are currently seeing in supermarkets is not panic buying and should not be described as such. Even telling people not to panic is counterproductive, because this in itself suggests that there is something to panic about, that some people are panicking and therefore we can not trust each other. The reason this is so toxic is that, in fact, we had better get through this crisis by acting together as a community. In practical terms, this means that we must trust each other… Above all, our message to the media, politicians and expert commentators is: Don’t say panic!” (9).
In another article, the same English social psychologists return to the topic of “panic buying”, but also stop to analyze other facts that are frequently cited as examples of the supposed propensity of people to act irrationally during emergencies: “Certainly, some people may have acted selfishly and against the common good. However, recent (unpublished) data suggests that hoarders are a small percentage of the population and the real reason for the shortage is the fragile ‘just-in-time’ supply chain of modern supermarkets. Similarly, a large part of the problem of public agglomerations has to do with people being forced to work by their employers, with limited commuting options available” (10).
If many people cannot comply with the isolation measures, this “has less to do with dysfunctional psychologies than with dysfunctional systems and dysfunctional practices. Indeed, people mainly do not comply with distancing measures due to lack of opportunities, rather than lack of reason or willpower, and the answer should be to provide more opportunities instead of making fun of them” (11).
To explain this tendency to morally condemn the actions of ordinary people, frequently calling them irrational, irresponsible and even childish, Reicher, Drury and Stott suggest the existence of “two psychologies”. The first of them conceives us as fragile people: “Our understanding of the world is distorted by multiple prejudices. We find it difficult to handle complex information, deal with risk and uncertainty. We lack the will to deal with the pressure and it is likely that it will yield under threat. And all of these trends are exacerbated when we come together in groups. Our reason atrophies, our emotions increase and spread like an infection. We lose control. We act irrationally. We are panicking.” According to this perspective, “people are the problem in a crisis. In the best case, they cannot take care of themselves. In the worst case, they exacerbate the original problem through their dysfunctional responses: they strip the stores, demand scarce medical resources that they don’t need, refuse to abide by the measures that are good for them, fight and mutiny. The implication of this view is deep paternalism. Because people are so childish in a crisis, they need the government to take care of them… It implies that the government must communicate in moderation and in the simplest way so that people do not feel overwhelmed by what they are told” (12).
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In stark contrast, the second “considers people in much more constructive terms: constructive in the sense that we do not distort information, but create meaning and understanding with the tools available to us, and also constructive in the sense that we are able to face our world, even in crisis. Also, both ways, we are more constructive when we meet in groups. We are better able to make sense of our world and to face the challenges we face in the world when we act among ourselves as members of a common group than when we act against each other as separate individuals. The way in which the community builds resilience is particularly clear in crises.
Of course, this approach is completely opposite to “contemporary psychological common sense, which insists that behavior is governed by individual self-interest. It also disagrees with social changes that relentlessly undermine communities and collectivities, seek to transform social groups into individual consumers, and view each relationship as a market-based interpersonal exchange. In this sense, perhaps the coronavirus is a powerful wake-up call” (14).
The response of Venezuelan society to the pandemic can be really surprising, especially if we take into account that, for a little more than five years, it has been profoundly affected by the marked deterioration of its material and spiritual conditions of life, experiencing the progressive undermining of sociability built since the beginning of the 21st century, founded on the common good, solidarity with the most disadvantaged, and popular participation and leadership.
In fact, the perspective offered by the social psychologists previously mentioned on the occasion of the social emergency situation caused by the pandemic, constitutes an invaluable input to try to carry out a retrospective analysis of what happened in Venezuela in recent years.
First, the profound and negative impact that all forms of self-fulfilling prophecy have had, particularly since the systematic efforts to install in the common sense the idea of “humanitarian crisis”, starting around 2014 (15) should be highlighted. By the way, and it is no coincidence, the first target was precisely the public health system.
Far from being aimed at contributing to the improvement of the public health system, the idea of a “humanitarian crisis” in health matters was politically motivated from the beginning: the objective was not to publicly question government mismanagement, demanding the necessary corrective measures, what in fact, strictly speaking, is a legitimate citizen right, and it is what corresponds to the organized people, but to create the conditions to delegitimize not only the national government, but the public health system itself.
The account of the “humanitarian crisis” in the food sector pursued the same objectives: it is simply impossible to read the analysis of social psychologists regarding “panic purchases” in the context of the pandemic emergency, and not to recall the treatment given all these years by politicians, the media and opinion-makers to the successive episodes of shortages of basic necessities, and especially the many sarcastic comments about empty shelves, and in particular about the lack of toilet paper, with the aggravating factor for which, in this case, the vast majority of the Venezuelan population was deliberately humiliated (16).
In fact, if we compare it with what happened with the public health system (and with the public education system, and in general with all public services, which have been the object of very similar attacks with identical purposes), in the case of the food distribution system the consequences were more damaging and lasting: its total dismantling, the lifting of price controls and the total “freedom” of action for monopolies and oligopolies, which have continued to take advantage of their dominant position over the market to “mark up” prices, which increase at their discretion and permanently. The disappearance of the public food distribution system (followed by the creation of the CLAPs, in April 2016, in a government effort to fill that gap) is the finest example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Very clear demonstration that the objective of the “humanitarian crisis” is not to overcome the crisis, but to create and deepen it (such is the logic of self-fulfilling prophecies), it is constituted by systematic violent attacks on public health centers, public educational units, public transport units and facilities, either people or food and other inputs, establishments of the public food distribution system, especially during the waves of political violence of the years 2013, 2014, 2017 and 2019, all this translated in the destruction of numerous public goods, multimillion-dollar losses for the nation, not to mention the loss of human lives.
Many other examples can be cited: the massive migration of Venezuelans as a consequence of the “humanitarian crisis” was the privileged topic of politicians, the media and analysts, long before migration was effectively massive (17). The unilateral coercive measures of the United States, the European Union and some other countries have been adopted, appealing to the same idea of “humanitarian crisis”, that is to say, contributing significantly to aggravating the same crisis to which they have resorted as an argumentative pretext to impose these measures. Another self-fulfilling prophecy. And perhaps the most extreme case: the idea of “humanitarian intervention” to resolve the “humanitarian crisis”, which the same politicians, media and experts irresponsibly consider. Ironically, and assuming it is not enough to invoke common sense, the mere fact that this is a not yet a fulfilled prophecy forbids us to say, with complete certainty, that such intervention will provoke, now for real, a humanitarian crisis.
The true fact is that this recurrence of self-fulfilling prophecies has had a profound impact on our sociability or, to put it another way, on the way we conceive what we have been, what we are as a society and what the future holds for us. What I have elsewhere called the de facto neoliberalization process of Venezuelan society (19) has left a deep mark on us.
As this process has progressed, the image that we have of ourselves has dangerously approached that first idea of “psychology” that Reicher, Drury and Stott described: as fragile, prejudiced people, with manifest inability to understand the world, with difficulty handling complex information, dealing with risk, uncertainty, pressure, threats; irrational, emotional, dysfunctional, childish, selfish people, prone to violence; people who despise the value of the collective and distrust the public. All of which, by the way, and as the social psychologists themselves already pointed out, in tune with contemporary psychological common sense, so prone to conclude that we act out of individual interest, rather than thinking about the common good, and as consumers more that anything else.
In part, what I have tried to call our great test here has to do with the need for us to review, with all the honesty that we are capable of, if this idea of “psychology” is what really defines us. And by “we” I am not referring only to us as individuals, nor to our closest environment, but to the society of which we are a part. It does not matter if in the examination of ourselves we do not look good. The important thing is not to stop conceiving ourselves as part of a whole, outside of which we would be lost.
After thinking about it a lot (and to thinking about this I have dedicated an important part of my time in quarantine), my provisional conclusion is that the image that we have made of ourselves as a society during the most recent years, is far away not only from what we have been, but above all from what we really are.
Who can deny that, to the extent that the worst self-fulfilling prophecies have been the order of the day, our tendency to act in a voracious, violent and hysterical manner, to use the same terms of the social psychologist Alfredo Rodríguez, has been manifest? But just at this point it is necessary to return to the initial question: why has the vast majority of Venezuelan society responded by abiding by voluntary quarantine, a circumstance that has been decisive in controlling the spread of the coronavirus?
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What has changed? What has made the difference? Or is it that the same politicians, media and opinion makers, in a sudden outburst of good sense, have stopped making the most catastrophic forecasts? Quite the contrary: for example, several weeks before the first confirmed case of coronavirus, they declared the imminence of a “health holocaust” and predicted “a true epidemiological massacre that could lead to extermination” (20).
What has made the difference, in the first place, has been the government’s response: complying in a timely manner with the recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), informing the population on a regular and detailed basis, guiding in a clear and precise way on the necessary prevention regulations, calling for national unity, without distinction of political bias; underlining the importance of appealing to the common good, to solidarity; strengthening the public health system; using the means at their disposal, such as the Patria System, to effectively serve the population; strengthening collaboration with institutions, such as the WHO and the Pan American Health Organization, and with countries such as Cuba, China and Russia, to access expert information, resources or inputs of extraordinary value.
This recovered confidence, which is confidence in the government authorities, but above all confidence in ourselves, is undoubtedly one of the most significant events that has taken place in Venezuela in a long time.
It is trust, and not panic, that is the value we place on the common good, and not selfishness, that has ultimately persuaded us about the advisability of respecting quarantine.
Does this circumstance deny the existence of a de facto neoliberalization process of Venezuelan society? Certainly not. But it allows us to identify its limits, to convince ourselves that such a phenomenon is far from being a fatality.
Have we, as a society, assimilated the profound implications of this event? It is urgent to do so, and this is the great test that lies ahead: once recovered, to relearn trust, which is the way not to lose it again. Because in the same way that we learn despair, we learn mistrust in ourselves, in our strength, in the ideas, values and feelings that make us more supportive human beings, capable of putting the common good before individual interest.
Let’s not fool ourselves: regained trust can be an ephemeral, momentary social achievement. It may well happen that it fades before our eyes without us even being able to notice it. That is why, I insist, it is so important to assimilate the fact as soon as possible: we have been able, as a society, beyond our political positions, to regain confidence.
The possibility of thinking about what we do
For very obvious reasons, those of us who had or have government responsibilities are even more obliged to assimilate, immediately, the scope of this event. We must, first of all, recognize our responsibility to prevent so many and so damaging prophecies from being fulfilled.
The effective management that the government authorities have made of the emergency situation due to the pandemic is the clearest demonstration of what must be done to conjure up self-fulfilled prophecies. But this same truth, in my incontrovertible opinion, also shows that in recent years our performance as a Government has been very ineffective.
Such ineffectiveness, it seems to me, is directly related to the fact that we have assumed a paternalistic attitude, in the terms defined by Reicher, Drury and Stott. That is, starting from the mistrust of people, convinced of their inability to manage in a situation of deep crisis, convinced of their immaturity or irrationality, we believe we are called to protect them, before anything else. This is particularly evident in the way in which, for a time now, government authorities in general transmit their messages to the population: “in moderation and in the simplest way so that people do not feel overwhelmed by what is being said to them.” (21). Much more frequently than socially tolerable, that attitude becomes almost total disinformation on fundamental societal issues, say it in other worlds, complete opacity regarding extremely important social decisions.
The way in which government authorities have dealt with the pandemic is the measure of what should be done in all areas, mainly in economic matters. In this matter, where the future of society as a whole is decided to the utmost, the government seems determined to write a manual on how to do exactly the opposite of what needs to be done.
Particularly economically, the information put at the service of the whole society should be sufficient, regular, timely, detailed, clear, regardless of its complexity. In addition to being informed, society has the right to discuss, question, reject and of course, make proposals, much more so in crisis situations. Because you have to create the conditions for this to be possible.
Thus, for example, and to cite a case of extraordinary relevance, announcing the restructuring of our oil industry is a correct and necessary measure, but completely insufficient, while PDVSA has once again become a true black box for all of society. Beyond the abundant public information on the impact of unilateral coercive measures imposed by the US government, little is known about what is happening within the country’s main company. The judicialization of workers of the company in an untransparent way, violating due process, further aggravates the situation.
What is the result of such ineffective handling of such sensitive issues for society? It is no mystery: mistrust.
In one of the most lucid texts ever written about the pandemic, Yuval Hoah Harari stated: “A self-motivated and well-informed population is often much more powerful and effective than a controlled and ignorant population… People have to trust in science, public authorities and the media. In recent years, irresponsible politicians have deliberately undermined trust in science, public authorities, and the media. Now those same irresponsible politicians could be tempted to take the path of authoritarianism, arguing that the population cannot be trusted to do the right thing” (22).
Harari’s writing is a “spoken portrait” of Donald Trump, whom he avoids expressly mentioning, although quite severe with the US government: “The current US government has renounced leadership. It has made it clear that the greatness of the United States matters to it much more than the future of humanity” (23).
In any case, what I want to insist on is the importance of trust. The best antidote to irresponsible politicians, media and experts who undermine people’s trust are politicians, media and experts who act responsibly, trusting people’s ability to handle complex information, their ability to deal with situations. crisis, and transmitting messages that emphasize the need to act for the common good. Such is the remedy against any self-fulfilling prophecy.
Harari makes another very pertinent point: “Whenever there is talk of surveillance, we must remember that the same surveillance technology can be used not only by governments to monitor individuals, but also by individuals to monitor governments (24). This in connection with the enormous opportunity that a tool like the Patria System represents.
Recently, Ketsy Medina suggested that the Patria System could be used by the population to make complaints related to gender violence. Reason is not lacking. Why not? In fact, it can also serve as an effective tool for people to report illegal collection at service station (bribes to police and national guard controlling lines in gas stations due the scarcity created by US sanctions), providing information that allows the authorities, in real time, to have a fairly approximate idea of possible sources of social conflict. In general, it can be used for people to evaluate the operation of public services, to file complaints against unscrupulous merchants, to evaluate the management of local, regional and even national authorities.
Specifically regarding the public crowds around service stations and the popular unrest associated with the illegal bribes by GNB members, it is worth remembering, once again, what Reicher, Drury and Stott said: if people do not comply with social distancing measures, this occurs most of the time due to lack of opportunities, not because people are irrational. Instead of blaming ordinary people, that is, “instead of making fun of the public” (25), what should be done is to create more opportunities, in this particular case, severely punishing the corrupted troops and guaranteeing effectiveness in the provision of the service, giving priority to whom it may concern, and also, incidentally, informing the population about the amount of fuel existing in the country. Again: we have to be able to trust the capacity of Venezuelan society to handle this information. Assuming in advance that people will panic is the complete opposite of what to do.
It is one thing to think that we do the only thing possible to deal with a crisis situation, and quite another to allow ourselves the possibility of thinking about what we do to deal with it. Overcoming this great test, as a society, involves choosing the second option.
(1) Javier Salas. How to get us to stay home instead of buying more toilet paper . El País, March 13, 2020.
(2) Stephen Reicher and John Drury. Don’t personalize, collectivise! The Psychologist. The British Psychological Society.
(3) Stephen Reicher and John Drury. Don’t personalize, collectivise!
(4) Stephen Reicher and John Drury. Don’t personalize, collectivise!
(5) Stephen Reicher and John Drury. Don’t personalize, collectivise!
(6) Stephen Reicher and John Drury. Don’t personalize, collectivise!
(7) Stephen Reicher and John Drury. Don’t personalize, collectivise!
(8) Javier Salas. How to get us to stay home instead of buying more toilet paper.
(9) Stephen Reicher, John Drury and Clifford Stott. The truth about panic . The Psychologist. The British Psychological Society.
(10) Stephen Reicher, John Drury and Clifford Stott. The two psychologies and Coronavirus . The Psychologist. The British Psychological Society.
(11) Stephen Reicher, John Drury and Clifford Stott. The two psychologies and Coronavirus.
(12) Stephen Reicher, John Drury and Clifford Stott. The two psychologies and Coronavirus.
(13) Stephen Reicher, John Drury, and Clifford Stott. The two psychologies and Coronavirus.
(14) Stephen Reicher and John Drury. Don’t personalize, collectivise!
(15) Reinaldo Iturriza López. Venezuela and “disaster capitalism”. February 2, 2019.
(16) Reinaldo Iturriza López. Chavismo, self-love and popular enjoyment. May 15, 2015.
(17) Reinaldo Iturriza López. Migration in Venezuela: a round trip ticket. September 14, 2016.
(18) Reinaldo Iturriza López. Venezuela and “disaster capitalism”.
(19) Reinaldo Iturriza López. Quarantine (VIII): Neoliberalism and popular classes: the ongoing mutation. February 4, 2020.
(20) Coronavirus would cause “health holocaust”, according to the Venezuelan Medical Federation. As is, January 28, 2020.
(21) Stephen Reicher, John Drury and Clifford Stott. The two psychologies and Coronavirus.
(22) Yuval Noah Harari. The world after the coronavirus. La Vanguardia, April 5, 2020.
(23) Yuval Noah Harari. The world after the coronavirus.
(24) Yuval Noah Harari. The world after the coronavirus.
(25) Stephen Reicher, John Drury and Clifford Stott. The two psychologies and Coronavirus.
Featured image: Dikó. Cacri Photos Collective
Translated by JR/EF