COVID-19, Big Brother, and Why We are Failing at Social Distancing

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This week while Israelis flocked to the beaches, back home in Canada the boardwalks and seawalls were crowded with Vancouverites taking advantage of the good weather. Much to the chagrin of our medical professionals and politicians, it seems that people simply can’t stay home for long, and social distancing requires everyone to commit, or it won’t work.

But why are we failing so badly at social distancing? The easy answer is because it’s hard; people are social animals and need to be outside. Stories emerging from Wuhan paint a bleak picture of months without any social gatherings and government-enforced lockdowns. No-one wants to enter hibernation just as the first signs of spring and summer are arriving. But recently, a series of viral videos circulating on social media have suggested another, deeper psychological reason for our failure.

I am talking, of course, about the COVID-19 reveals on Big Brother. Big Brother is a television show hosted in many countries around the world where a group of young people enter a house under 24/7 video surveillance and compete with each other to see who will emerge victorious, usually for a big cash prize. Most of the cast-members entered the houses in January or early February, before COVID-19 had spread significantly outside of Asia, and have not had access to social media since.

So far, there are two videos circulating, from the Canadian and German shows (although contestants from other shows have also been informed). Despite being in two different languages, and from two different cultures, there are plenty of similarities when the showrunners explain the situation to the cast-members. The contestants all look terrified. This is understandable: lacking context, they likely feel that they have been dropped into a real-world version of the movie Contagion. They have just heard phrases like: “The virus has continued to spread worldwide” and “The WHO declared this a pandemic … Most of the cases are in China, Italy and Iran [three geographically distant places].” By the end of the broadcasts many of the contestants are crying, shaking and holding each other. If you were in their shoes, you would likely feel the same.

Why, then, has our response to COVID-19 not been as strong? I’ll explain with a metaphoric parable: A frog jumps into a pot of boiling water. Shocked, it leaps out immediately. Over on another stove, a frog is placed in lukewarm water, and the heat is slowly turned up. Gradually, by degrees, the frog is cooked alive because it never realizes it is in danger. This phenomenon, which is also called creeping normality or shifting baseline, is most frequently applied to our inaction in the face of climate change, but it is relevant for our response to COVID-19 as well. Creeping normality refers to a psychological process whereby a major change (like a global pandemic) can be accepted as normal if it happens slowly through a series of small increments of change.

Right now, we are all the second frog: slowly boiling alive in an incremental increase in caseloads, death rates, and travel restrictions over the past two months. Governments around the world have acted slowly both because of the sloth-like nature of bureaucratic institutions, and in an attempt to be perceived as considerate of personal freedoms. The unintended side effect of this is a lower level of compliance from the population when it comes to social distancing and self-isolation, because we have trouble assessing the urgency of the situation. This doesn’t mean we should panic, like frog number one. But we need to act quickly, and hopefully videos like these help drive home the need for social distancing.

As I write this article, I still have hope that humanity will come together in this fight against COVID-19. My social media feeds are full to the brim with stories of people reaching out, supporting each other, buying groceries, or lending a helping hand. We need to look no further than the spontaneous group-hug at the end of the Big Brother Canada clip to see that in times of crisis, people join hands and band together against a common enemy.

About the Author
Jamie Magrill is a scientist-scholar and world-traveler with an interest in entrepreneurship and startups, particularly in the biomedical and philanthropic fields, an MSc in Biomedical Sciences Candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a Masa Israel Journey alum.
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