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Corona Diaries: Maslow’s pandemic

April 2, 2020

I don’t want to get overly philosophical, but I do think that one of the interesting facets of the pandemic lies in how the definition of essential will change during weeks or months of social isolation.

Before the lockdown, you may have been among among the hordes of people panic buying in the supermarkets, anxious to buy anything that they perceived would be unavailable should the outbreak get worse.

Anyone who remembers learning about Abraham Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs will recognise this behaviour as trying to meet the most basic need – defined as Physiological.  The need for basic survival, food, shelter, warmth, clothing and so forth.

For most people, I suspect that the panic buying was on the basis of “just in case”. Once we realised what a serious threat we were facing, we started worrying about needs that Maslow defined as at the second level as Safety and Security. Will I catch the virus? Will I die? Will I lose my job? What will happen to my savings if the economy crashes? Will I be physically safe from opportunistic burglars or marauding rioters?

Next up, at the third level we have Love and Belonging. This is where we function as friends, families, tribes, society in general. Now that we’re confined to our homes, how can we make up for the lack of proximity to people and groups where we fit in? Those who can, make up it by phone calls, online chat, Skype, Zoom and so on. It’s better than nothing. Needless to say there are others – especially those who don’t have access to these tools – whose sense of belonging must feel utterly broken.

The fourth level is Self-Esteem. How many people languishing at home, deprived of the symbols of social and career success, are thinking about how fragile and ultimately irrelevant those symbols are? Perhaps they’re questioning the value of the jobs they do. Above all, they might be feeling pretty powerless. Some are entitled to feel proud of their work in the crisis, such as the NHS staff who are doing their best to keep the rest of us alive and healthy. But the chances are that they don’t have the time or energy to feel good about what they do, despite the applause they receive. They’re down at level 2 – exhausted, afraid, trying to stay alive themselves.

And finally Self-Actualisation – the sense of achievement, of knowing that our lives have been worth something. That we are worthy of an obituary that say more than “we were born, we lived and we died”. For most of us, the only achievement we need right now is to stay above ground through to the other end of this pandemic.

Now, back to shifting definitions of “essential”. It’s pretty clear that the government views essential as primarily a matter of safety and security. It had and still has no concerns about Level 1. There’s plenty of food in the supermarkets, and these days even loo paper seems easy to obtain.

Though the government might think that it has the task of ensuring our physical safety well in hand, the psychological safety of the nation is another matter. And this is where definitions of essential start to blur. At the moment, most people seem to be coping with being cooped up and isolated from their normal social structures. But how long will that last?

The cracks are already appearing. There have been push backs against over-enthusiastic police enforcement. People are starting to be concerned about things they feel are essential to well-being, which could be the kid of activities deemed by Derbyshire Police to be “NOT ESSENTIAL”.

For example, the Times this morning reports on a garden centre owner who is refusing to close on the grounds that for many people, the ability to tend their gardens – albeit in isolation – is essential to surviving the crisis. So he sell seeds, bedding plants, fertiliser and all the other stuff people use to keep their gardens looking pretty in the summer.

As isolation continues, this is where the government needs to be fast on its feet. It’s not enough to call on the army to patrol the streets in an effort to keep us confined. If it’s sensible, it will also be adding to its army of experts a few psychologists who can devise strategies that will keep us docile without the use of force.

They should particularly advise on ways to lighten the measures in ways that will not lead to a new upsurge in infections. In Italy, they are trying to do this by allowing people to go out with their children. In Britain, I suspect that being able to buy seeds and bedding plants will not do the job for everyone, since we don’t all have gardens. Perhaps the wherewithal to enable the cultivation of a particular type of weed might come in very handy for quite a few folk whose supplies are running low.

If the antigen tests come online soon, another measure would be to allow a little more freedom to those who know they’ve already had the virus. Will we start seeing antigen parties in our parks?

What’s pretty clear to me is that as the period of isolation drags on, our idea of essential will start to ascend up the hierarchy of needs. If the government is smart, it will be sensitive to this dynamic, and will come up with effective ways that will allow us gradually to return to normality, not just in the physical sense, but also mentally. Whether or not it’s copped on to this challenge remains to be seen.

Perhaps first we need to think about whether or not normality as we knew it in 2019 ever returns. Whoever answers that question successfully will find no shortage of self-actualisation,

From → Social, UK

  1. It’s not letting me like…but I do.

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