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Elite Panic

A honey challah for Rosh HaShana, September 2020. I’d offer you some, but you can’t come over, because I’m on lockdown.

Happy 5781, LGM! May the year and its curses end; may the year and its blessings begin.

As you may have already read, Israel is greeting the new year by going back into lockdown, the first country to do so (though the UK is apparently mooting the same step). Travel between cities is prohibited except for certain professions (because it’s the holiday weekend, these include rabbis and cantors), and so is venturing more than a kilometer from your home, or going into someone else’s home. Shops and restaurants are closed, though offices remain open for the time being. These restrictions will be in effect until at least October 9th.

This is, at one and the same time, an utterly necessary step, and quite possibly entirely insufficient. Infection rates in Israel have soared to more than 5,000 new cases a day, and hospital wards are groaning under the pressure of hundreds of severe cases, many requiring ventilators. But there’s much skepticism over whether the current measures—which, among other things, make great allowances for religious services over the high holy days, despite the fact that synagogues are known to be a major infection vector—will be sufficient to stall the spread of the disease.

More importantly, it’s unclear whether Israelis will abide by the rules, after months of eroding confidence in the government and its ministers. Last spring, Israelis dutifully spent the Seder away from their families, only to wake up to pictures of the president and prime minister celebrating with their adult, non-residential children. The intervening months have repeatedly thrown up images of ministers flouting everything from mask ordinances to prohibitions against large public gatherings. As the regulations for the lockdown were being formalized, Netanyahu zipped to the US to sign the arms deal normalization accord with the UAE and Bahrain. When it became clear that the White House lawn ceremony violated all Israeli social distancing requirements, the Netanyahu delegation immediately began lobbying to be exempted from self-isolation requirements upon their return. It’s increasingly clear that there’s one rule for the elite, and one rule for the rest of us, and coupled with the near-total lack of financial support for struggling businesses and out-of-work citizens, there is precious little motivation to follow the rules.

It was with all these depressing facts in mind that I read Malka Older’s article in Foreign Policy, “The Only People Panicking Are the People in Charge”. I’ve mentioned Older here before, as a science fiction author whose work incorporates politics, international aid work, and speculation about the future of democracy. For this article, she draws on her experience on the ground at several major disasters to argue that “panic” is an unusual, even nonexistent response, and that it is in fact more common among those who are not affected, who have the luxury of imagining that ravening hordes are on their way to loot and destroy the things they are in no danger of losing.

So why does this myth about public panic persist? Part of it, of course, is the aforementioned movies and TV shows, which in their uniformity create a kind of vicious cycle of what I call narrative disorder. When we see the behavior often enough, we start to believe it—even knowing that movies aren’t real—to the point that we may expect that kind of behavior and to the point of even seeing it where it isn’t happening. Since we accept that that is what happens, more scriptwriters and filmmakers, who typically don’t know more about disasters than the general public, put it into their movies, and we become more and more convinced that it is true.

While this is understandable for people who aren’t in charge of setting policy for disasters or leading responses, it’s a sorry excuse for elected officials who should have access to emergency management experts. However, disaster studies have found a more insidious reason that leaders cling to such ideas. While it is the well-evidenced conclusion that the masses do not panic in disasters, the literature does point to another pattern: Elites, who have the most to lose in the case of disruption, do.

Lee Clarke and Caron Chess, two researchers at Rutgers University who are usually credited with coining the phrase “elite panic,” argue with persuasive examples that elites fear panic, cause panic, and often panic themselves, reacting disproportionately to threats. (Clarke has created a set of presentation slides about social behavior in disasters; the final slide, titled “Modeling official behavior,” gives us the evocative bullet points: “Ignorance,” “Arrogance,” “Hubris,” and “Officials can cause ‘panic.’”)

Kathleen Tierney of the University of Colorado looked at elite panic in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, such as when then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco first called off the emergency response and then threatened shoot-to-kill orders in response to the problem of looting, which as later reporting showed was highly exaggerated. Similarly, police from a neighboring parish blocked evacuees from New Orleans from entering, firing shotguns over their heads, because of their fears of the “criminal element” based on those same exaggerated reports of looting and mayhem. The impacts of this, as Tierney notes, include the direct damage to people who were frightened or unable to scavenge for food. Tierney asks: “How much resident-to-resident helping behavior was prevented or suppressed because people were afraid to venture out to help their neighbors out of fear of being killed or arrested?”

Clarke and Chess write: “Planners and policy makers sometimes act as if the human response to threatening conditions is more dangerous than the threatening conditions themselves.” That false claim becomes a way for elites to maintain control and protect their own interests. Typically shielded from the immediate impacts of a disaster, elites tend to be much more worried about disruption to the status quo and the loss of political capital and power. That they use a long-discredited fallacy about the public behaving irrationally to do this adds insult to injury.

Older is writing in the context of Trump’s spurious claims that his decision not to publicize the danger posed by the coronavirus pandemic was grounded in fear of a public panic. But I think the term “elite panic” has a broader applicability than just the immediate aftermath of a disaster. It seems to me to explain a lot about political inaction in response to the pandemic, the deer-in-the-headlights response we’ve seen from so many politicians in so many countries, who seem genuinely to believe that if they just ignore the virus, it will go away and they can go back to the way things were before.

As we’ve all pointed out, very simple and straightforward policies, clearly explained to the public, might have prevented a lot of the heartache, confusion, and loss of life of the last few months. But a certain type of politician is horrified—driven to panic—by the idea of changing the rules in response to changed conditions. If we admit that a public health infrastructure is a necessity, that hospitals and labs need to be funded and provided with equipment and supplies, that people need financial support in order to be able to stay home and keep from spreading the disease, that businesses need support in order to stay afloat and keep the economy chugging—well, who knows where that might lead? Better to just close your eyes, stick your fingers in your ears, and go LALALA very loudly until it all goes away.

And unfortunately, elite panic tends to trickle back down to the populace. The immediate response to the disaster may be solidarity and mutual support, but when people realize that help isn’t coming, that there is no one above them who is making plans and taking responsibility, and that the rules don’t apply equally to everyone, it doesn’t take long for mutuality to break down. We’re on the cusp of that in Israel, and I really have no idea whether the next few weeks will see Israelis claw back their sense of responsibility to one another, or whether the social contract that is essential to defeating the pandemic will collapse once and for all.

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