With the arrival of
Coronavirus on South African shores, panic appears to have set in. While our
President showed great leadership on Sunday night, it very quickly brought the
reality of the virus right to our doorstep.
The JSE has lost value. Shelves in Clicks and Dischem have been stripped
of hand sanitizer, toilet paper and immune boosters and people are wearing
masks and gloves in the supermarket – if they’re even venturing out.
While there is no
question that the spread of Coronavirus is scary, doctors are clear that up to
80% of people infected will experience mild flu-like symptoms, feel unwell – but
will recover – as my New York-based friend, who is infected, reports.
As I write, China (the
epicenter of the outbreak, with over 81 000 cases and 3200 deaths) seems
to be getting a handle on the disease, as is South Korea.
Yet, the uncertainty
around how COVID-19 will impact growth and, most importantly, when it will end,
is bringing the global economy to its knees, sending stock markets reeling on
the back of fears of a prolonged economic slowdown.
It’s important to
remember that Coronavirus is not the first event to spark widespread panic and,
given human nature, it won’t be the last. Remember the scaremongering and
stockpiling that took place both before South Africa’s first democratic
election in 1994 and again around the Millennium, when many were worried that
Y2K would bring the world to a grinding halt? Or, the SARS outbreak that was
touted as the next ‘Spanish Flu’? We know that the world lived to tell the tale
then – and will again now.
Yet, still we panic,
driving our anxiety to unmanageable levels – and impacting our ability to make
clear, focused (and often much-needed) decisions.
It is this aspect of
the Coronavirus epidemic that, as a self-professed student of human behavior,
has sparked my interest – the question of what drives normally sane, rational and
measured humans to panic at the first sign of trouble and start fear-mongering
and making uninformed decisions.
We know that it
happens to the best of us. Some years ago, when my then-business was going
through a rough patch, I tried to set up an emergency strategy session with my
partner. His response was a firm ‘No’ – that he wasn’t available. Yet, 6 weeks
later when things were going a lot better, he suddenly was. When I asked why
the change, he told me that he’d declined the session earlier because I’d been
in a state of fear, which would have negatively influenced my ability to put a
plan in place. I’ve never forgotten the lesson that, when we plan from a place
of abundance and love, our plans are much more open, encompassing, innovative
and usually successful... In other words, when anxiety overrides thinking, our
ability to make clear decisions is negatively influenced.
This is backed up by
New research suggests
that anxiety impacts our brains by disengaging the pre-frontal cortex – the
part of the brain that is essential for good decision-making (where we weigh up
consequences, plan and process thoughts in a logical, rational way and screen
out distractions or irrelevant information). When this happens, we become
overwhelmed, distracted and stop thinking. Emotion takes over and logic is set
aside. Bad news is magnified and any positive signs are largely ignored.
At this point, we
either make the ‘safe’ choice or a quick rash decision that we’re likely to
regret later. Either way, with our minds racing at a million miles an hour,
we’re unable to settle on a thought easily – and, when we do, that thought is
most often negative, further fueling our anxiety.
So, in times of great
stress (COVID-19 and beyond), how can we override our anxiety to make better
Firstly, slow down…
Take a breath and slow
down your thinking.
Very few decisions need
to be made in that instant. Often, if we rush a decision, we’re doing so
because we’re driven by sensationalist news, herd mentality or the belief that
our thoughts, feelings and behavior are a single package. Just because we feel
a certain way doesn’t mean that we have to act a certain way. Instead, we need
to push against the habitual response and break the cycle by slowing the
process down, being mindful and, in doing so, moving away from automatic
thoughts and responses towards focusing on what is really happening and how we
can best respond.
Then, take action…
Problems often seem
insurmountable. When this happens, start small by working on one part of the
problem first. Ask questions about your concerns. Find a good sounding board.
Taking action can also
mean taking care of yourself. Get enough sleep. Eat well. Exercise.
Remember that you
don’t need news on a continuous loop – stop reading the (negative) news. Those
who get this right say that ignorance truly is bliss.
There’s no doubt that
we’re living through one of the most uncertain (and unnerving) periods in human
history. And, where in times of uncertainty, we would normally seek comfort
from one another, we’re being driven apart by a virus that no-one (yet) fully
Truly, this is a
reminder that the illusion of control we think we have is just that – an
However, what is
certain is that this too shall pass. And, when it does, we will be changed and
redefined in ways that we can’t yet imagine.
I believe that the
secret to coming through this time positively lies in reframing our thinking.
Keep anxiety under
control. Make clear, thoughtful decisions, with the emphasis on long term strategy.
Regroup, reprioritize, recharge and innovate.
I always remind myself
that it is not necessarily the strongest of the species that survives, but
rather, the most adaptable to change.
As leaders, our teams look
to us for confidence and for honest, clear communication.
And, while they don’t
necessarily expect us to have all the answers, they do expect us to be working
on a plan for the benefit of everyone. Showing fear and despair is not going to
inspire our people to be extraordinary – and now, more so than ever, we need extraordinary.
Our belief in a shared vision for the benefit of humanity is critical to our
Above all, remember
that, as Stephen King said, ‘Panic is highly contagious, especially in
situation when nothing is known and everything is in flux’
Peace and love to us