Last week, the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma reopened under the new name The Tiger King Park. Social distancing rules fell by the wayside as crowds jostled to be let in and to pet the tiger cubs. For at least a time, fear of each other had been overcome as much as fear of the tigers. Perhaps, the signage cautioning people not to try and pull the tigers’ tails or put their fingers inside the cages provided just the right advice at the right time.
At the moment, I am being encouraged to buy COVID-19 advisory signage for our office. Office signage has long been a source of delight – I particularly like the sign counselling one against putting one’s tie in the shredder and so I am very attracted to the rather jolly signs of bare feet, placed two metres apart. If we cannot be trusted to approximate two metres, this sign will almost certainly result in everyone taking their shoes off and there is something rather fun and beachy about that!
I do, however, draw the line at the signs that give us a five-step guide to washing our hands. I have washed my hands before and pretty much have it down. The signs are exactly the same as kindergarten posters except there are far more words and far fewer sea creatures. Infantilising people is surely not helpful in providing a measured and effective way forward out of the current crisis. We must worry as much about the impact on our mental health and on society that the rhetoric of fear and hysteria will create as the disease itself.
In walking through a woodland recently, I came across a family with two young children of about five and seven. The parents went one way and the children the other to allow me to pass through the middle. The five-year-old had a change of heart and decided to re-join her parents and thus got caught in the middle of the path, a terrifying 1.8 metres away from me. The fear on her face at finding herself in this position was extraordinary. I was certainly far more terrifying than a tiger. This is not her appraisal of risk to herself (infinitesimally small at this age) but a reflection of messaging, parental or otherwise, that distance from strangers is needed and that danger lies in proximity. We should consider carefully what this messaging is doing to our society. We are far less fearful of far greater risk. That is not to minimise the gravity of the corona crisis; merely to suggest that information be trafficked with caution, without sensationalism. Might we not bring some perspective to this mayhem and madness and minimise rather than fuel the panicdemic by some more balanced reporting. Why are we the only country providing statistics to Worldometers that show number recovered as NA? All other countries at this stage of outbreak have sight of the slowly, and then more rapidly, rising tally of people recovered as a source of optimism, a reminder that most get better. If we are to be scared senseless by figures, let us at least look at the complete picture – in the furious debate about whether it is safe for our children to return to school, we should be reminded that, according to The Office of National Statistics, the number of fatalities from the corona virus in the school age population is below 10, and that the fatality risk to our children from a traffic accident in them getting to school is thus considerably greater. “Our main problem is that no one will ever get in trouble for measures that are too draconian. They will only get in trouble if they do too little. So, our politicians and those working with public health do much more than they should do. But remember the joke about tigers. “Why do you blow the horn?” “To keep the tigers away.” “But there are no tigers here.” “There you see!” (i)
In Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, the tiger is a metaphor for fear and Pi must learn to control the tiger in order to survive. They are literally and metaphorically in the same boat and thus their relationship eventually and necessarily becomes one of compromise. Pi must exist with the tiger/the fear and control it not it him. Fear is useful up to a point and a natural reaction in the face of the unknown, particularly when the media invites us to panic every day but if it gains control it can be deadly.
Notes: (i) Dr Peter Goetzsche, Professor of Clinical Research Design and Analysis at University of Copenhagen and founder of the Cochrane Medical Collaboration.