A battle between fear and hope, anxiety and positivity, panic and opportunity. This is how the coronavirus crisis is sometimes depicted. Not only as a battle against a virus, but also an inner struggle between our feelings of hope and anxiety. This dichotomous perspective may be better understood if we consider the culture of self-help, which is bent on overcoming negative feelings. Finding routines, creating to-do lists, acquiring new skills or habits and even starting your own ‘side hustle,’ self-help explodes online. Motivational speakers give tips and advice on how to deal with stress and anxiety. From quarantine workout plans to meditation, building mental resilience or finding opportunities to grow, calls for personal development abound online. A few critical voices also begin to emerge: see for example the call to “stop romanticizing lockdown”.
But does positivity hinder the vigilance of citizens who are expected to be more careful than ever? If we consider the following two examples, it may seem so:
Some millennials seem to ignore coronavirus warnings and the social distancing guidelines. One famous example in the media is that of the “spring breakers” who partied on Miami beaches in mid-March 2020. Asked about this, some of them confessed: “If I get corona, I get corona. At the end of the day, I’m not going to let it stop me from partying.” Another boy said: “We’re just trying to roll with it. We’re just living for the moment.” It is not only that they show little or no fear of the virus, but they maintain an overly optimistic attitude. Instead of merely backlashing against them, we should also consider the cultural and social values they adopt: the power of the individual will, the belief that thoughts and attitudes matter more, even when dealing with diseases, the idealization of the present moment or the belief that one should live its life to the fullest. Values that are reinforced by a self-help culture.
In a different context in Italy, the mayor of Delia in Sicily, Gianfilippo Bancheri, criticizes the “Everything will be alright” message (Andrà tutto bene) that citizens display on their balconies.
Even though the message doesn’t necessarily mean “relax, stop being vigilant”, this is exactly how Bancheri seems to understand it. In a video on social media, the mayor asks “when should we alarm ourselves” as he is confronted with relaxed attitudes:
“Many of you have made posters which say ‘Everything will be fine.’ How will it be alright if we continue to go out every day to do shopping? […] How will it be alright if many of you go out to buy cigarettes every day? […] If a lot of people ask the hairdresser to do their hair at home? […] Today is Sunday, many people in the countryside go out for a barbecue. Barbecue? Are you kidding? […] There are also people having parties in their apartments. Just today, I had to go and stop them. […]” (Source: TRT World, Facebook, 22.03.2020)
However, finding ways to remain positive is also an important coping mechanism and a way of showing solidarity. Isolated people in Italy played music and sang together and French medical workers applauded from their balconies. In the UK, people also applauded its care workers. Police officers in Spain danced for the amusement of isolated people and firefighters painted banners for children.
The World Health Organization offers advice for the public, including how to cope with stress during the outbreak. And it offers guidelines for mental health, too. Positivity is seen as an important part of it: for instance, people “should amplify positive and hopeful stories and positive images of local people who have experienced COVID-19. For example, stories of people who have recovered or who have supported a loved one and are willing to share their experience.” In short, the WHO regards positivity as an essential act of health monitoring, as this infographic also shows:
So maybe it would be too far-fetched to argue that positivity is the opposite of vigilance. Quite the contrary, it has to be considered as an important part of it. But if positivity is not the problem, then how do we explain careless responses and attitudes?
One possible answer could be the antagonistic approach promoted by self-help culture: fear vs. positivity. Instead of seeing them as coextensive and mutually reinforcing, self-help attitudes encourage a progressive worldview: the self needs to replace fear with growth. American motivational speaker Prince Ea attacks fearful attitudes in one of his videos posted on March 28. According to him, fear, the so-called “F-virus,” is an enemy worse than the coronavirus. Ea does not merely encourage a vigilant attitude – to be “alert not fearful” – but also makes a call on everyone to “decontaminate yourself through dance, laughter, meditation.” This strong rhetoric of emotional disinfection promotes a view of positivity as a substitute for fear, rather than its supplement. It maintains a dichotomous view which is supported by another widely shared infographic.
The origin of the infographic is unknown, but it has been widely spread on social media channels, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Beginning with the question “Who do I choose to be during the Covid-19?” it draws three separate zones: the fear zone, the learning zone and the growth zone. By doing so, it tends to exaggerate the reactions to the outbreak: the self either consumes too much or stops consuming. It is either panicked or grateful. Either a control freak or liberated. Either fearful or improved. It reinforces the self-help view of victory as an act of overcoming. Instead of the ‘comfort zone,’ it is the ‘fear zone’ which is now highlighted and needs to be mastered.
But it is precisely this antagonistic narrative of mastery that may hinder vigilance. Positivity without fear can lead to ignorance and negligence. And fear without positivity can lead to panic buying and a sense of doom, an apocalyptic feeling. Neither feeling should be dismissed or downplayed. Not any sense of hope and positivity should be dismissed as self-help nonsense. We need coping mechanisms, especially during moments of crisis. Positivity can even be a requirement for maintaining vigilance, as the WHO points out. And not any sense of fear should be dismissed as an irrational and negative attitude that needs to be overcome. Maybe vigilance is best maintained when fear and hope accompany each other. Maintaining vigilance during the corona outbreak could mean being cautious towards both extremes: balancing our fears with the positive, because this is not the end of the world. And balancing our hopes with concern and worry, because this disease is not ‘just the flu.’