In the face of the coronavirus crisis that is paralysing the nation, South Africa needs policies in place to lead the country back to health.
Perhaps the first policy should be that the media should not be policymakers. With this fundamental measure in place, the rest would certainly be much easier.
A case in point was the recent op-ed of The Wall Street Journal writer Peggy Noonan. Her editorial decried the present measures as inadequate and stressed the need to stretch the imagination of what could possibly happen. She says the advice, “don’t panic,” is misdirected. There is a need to panic as a means of exploring all the possible threats that could be out there. America must be prepared for everything – even the unimaginable. Afterward, she concedes, officials can moderate overzealous actions caused by the panic, to return to more reasonable levels of caution.
The Dangers of Panic
However, panic as policy is always dangerous. By definition, panic is a sudden unreasoning terror or fear that prompts irrational action such as flight. Panic unleashes a series of steps that are hard to contain once set in motion. It creates a competition among officials to each outdo the other in zeal for action, lest they be faulted for inaction.
When panic rules, every possible threat must be considered even if only remotely probable. Every contact must be suspected. Every action monitored. All must be locked down because of what might happen. Such a social order thus organized is not a society but a universal prison. Life becomes impossible under such a regime. No state can long function in a situation in which it must be prepared for all possible threats that can be imagined.
Playing With Numbers
Panic policy relies on a jumble of numbers and statistics thrown out into the public forum to prove anything and everything. Panic plays with numbers and makes wild projections about what could happen. It does not wait to collect and analyse data, to then formulate conclusions. Instead, it runs with whatever numbers fit the panic, usually making disastrous decisions.
Any number, even relatively small numbers, can be inflated and sensationalised, distorting the reality. “Spiralling” cases may only involve dozens of new illnesses. Indeed, a single death becomes unbearable, where fear rules.
Epidemiologist Dr. John Ioannidis, professor of medicine at Stanford University, complains that the coronavirus data collected so far is “utterly unreliable”. And yet, important decisions are being made by government officials in the dark. Their rash decisions may bring devastating consequences upon the nation.
A Destructive Fear
The most dangerous threat of panic is its destructive power. When set in motion, panic does not care what is in the way of its mad flight. All must be sacrificed – economy, society and even worship – in the name of irrational fear.
Moreover, panic is hard to stop. Combat veteran officers know the abysmal difference between a retreat with its frequent intelligent and disciplined rear-guard actions, and a rout. The first makes the best of a bad situation. It tries to save the army, to fight another day, and with better odds. The latter brings [about] the collapse of the fighting force and its slaughter.
Thus, panic can take social isolation to the extreme of destroying the very society it claims to be saving through means that are not proven to be effective. No one denies the need to take measures to limit the spread of the virus. However, these measures must be based on verifiable data, not wild assumptions.
This danger is echoing all across the nation as business and community leaders express their concerns. Indeed, the business sector complains that the grinding of the economy to a halt will have disastrous long-term effects. It will bring enormous suffering to millions of South Africans. The health risks that might be avoided by lockdowns can give rise to dangers in other areas of stress and psychological health. Many fear that the strain on government resources will prove too great and cause the nation’s socio-economic collapse.
When the panic of not reacting enough takes hold, nothing is off the table. The situation is aggravated by the political posturing of politicians who use the crisis to their own ends.
When panic informs policy, it becomes impossible to make the right decisions. It is not the case to argue here about what specific measures should or should not be implemented. The Coronavirus crisis is a severe threat that must be confronted, and no one denies it will involve hardship.
However, what is missing is wisdom. Many, especially the media, are not presenting a balanced picture, or the whole one.
Wisdom is the contrary of panic. Wisdom is calm, reflective, impartial and objective. It deals with reality as it is, not as one might imagine it to be.
German philosopher Josef Pieper defined wisdom as knowing the highest cause of things. He writes:
“‘To know the highest cause’, then, does not mean to know the cause of some particular thing, but to know the cause of everything and of all things: it means to know the ‘whither’ and the ‘whence’, the origin and the end, the plan and the structure, the framework and the meaning of reality.”
What South Africa Needs
This wisdom must be sought everywhere and at all levels.
South Africa needs calm voices that reflect an understanding of the crisis’s entire framework. It begs for government authorities that can make decisions with wisdom, not toppling the whole system.
South Africa needs wise leadership to raise its voice above the din of the panicky crowds and media. Its words will be measured and objective, providing sound counsel in these times of trial.
Above all, South Africa needs prayerful hearts to implore help from the Eternal Wisdom, the Word Incarnate. Such souls know well that natural solutions will not be enough in this crisis. South Africa must have recourse to God’s help if it is to return to order.
But God is found in wisdom’s gentle breeze, not in panic’s emotional hurricanes: Non in commotione, Dominus—The Lord is not found in commotion (see 3 Kings 19:11–12).
John Horvat II