The problem

Late last year a pneumonia of unknown cause was detected in Wuhan, a city in the People’s Republic of China, and first reported to the WHO Country Office in China on 31 December 2019. The outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by WHO on 30 January 2020 and a global pandemic announced on 11 March 2020. From this first formal detection of the new strain of Coronavirus (now commonly referred to as COVID 19) in Hubei Province, until now, the timescale of spread becomes convoluted and difficult to follow. Such is the nature of disease transmission and the evolution of a pandemic. With over one million cases globally, current COVID 19 infection mapping shows the pandemic has affected nearly all communities of the world.[1]

Our response

The human response to the pandemic is diverse and dynamic. Internationally, after about three weeks since the declaration, some nations have been in full lockdown to stem the spread of infection whereas other countries continue life as normal, almost in defiance of specialist advice and the evidence of illness and death around the world. Such are the different cultures and their associated responses to threats. Globally, government responses have supported their citizens, both domestically and overseas, in most cases bringing them home or receiving those Australian citizens ejected from other nation states that have gone into lockdown. Government-imposed restrictions on public and private life, to the extent of limiting personal freedoms in attempt to slow the spread of COVID 19, have been mostly accepted by the community despite reports of individuals breaking the ban.

The emotional considerations of these restrictions have implications for the mental wellbeing of individuals and communities as a whole. To have freedoms and everyday entitlements limited or removed altogether is not easily accepted in many communities, especially those who have enjoyed the liberal freedoms of western democratic societies like Australia. Add to these concerns a surge on buying normally-prolific items, such as groceries or consumer goods, and a general feeling of anxiety starts to creep into people’s consciousness. Fear inhibits reason. Herein lies a serious problem for us all but we can do something about it.

The pandemic will likely recede incrementally as the human immune system develops resistance to this particular strain of coronavirus and medicine is developed to help us in that pursuit. The anxiety will probably diminish commensurate with the reduced global prevalence of COVID 19.  As humans, we look for control over our environment to limit our exposure to the threat, to protect our families and do our best to minimise our losses. Some of our community have lost jobs and the security of an income, which underpins our hard-earned way of life. Others are caring for family members who at high-risk of death if they contract COVID 19. All this anxiety needs an outlet. Many of our familiar pastimes are not available to us at the moment and we don't know how long they will remain off-limits. So maybe now it is time we look at the problem differently so we can do something about these worries. The skills we require to do this are inherent in us all and many practice the ideologies subconsciously. Our thinking needs to be more deliberate to defeat this anxiety. Awareness conquers fear.

Our options

Reflective practice, critical thinking, and the concepts espoused in stoic philosophy provide a means through which we can navigate deliberately to increased self-awareness and a stronger emotional and social intelligence. By engaging this thinking now, we can maximise our awareness and development in these skills in a real-time situation that will likely result in a stronger outcome from the current pandemic.

Reflective practice is the ability to reflect on your actions, using past experiences to learn and plan for future situations. It is a skill for continuous learning and improvement. We review what has happened, we consider and identify new ways to improve or change the results. Reflective practice can help you to think creatively and critically. In simple terms, reflective practice is a conscious action to think about events, develop insights and to evoke positive change. Importantly, reflective practice can help with situations that are mentally, emotionally or physically draining to effect positive change in both your professional and personal life; times like now, when COVID 19 challenges just about everything you do.

Critical thinking is structured thought. It employs reflection, research and synthesis of information. Importantly, it is logical but also considers other perspectives, cultural influences and context. Simply put, if you recall when you have made a spontaneous decision without really realising, mainly based on your intuition and experience, then you are probably not thinking critically. It should be noted that critical thinking does not always result in a decision or action. It may just be how you view something. Critical thinking is a manner of thinking that, with practice, assists you to make more effective determinations in whatever you are doing or contemplating.

Your ability to ‘read between the lines’ or recognise flawed information or arguments becomes a distinct skill in critical thinking best-practice. With awareness of the fifteen commonly recognised logical fallacies, examples I see in the current environment are particularly ‘appeal to emotion’, ‘false cause’ and ‘appeal to authority’. You can employ your critical thinking to consider the validity of information and understand if your thinking is being influenced. In the global online information context there is so much content available, and much of that is from credible sources, but a brief scan of the logical fallacies being presented can discount much of the ‘fake news’ in order to refine a quality argument. This is never more important than now to understand the voracity of what is being said and heard. The emotional effect of distilling quality information will probably ease the mental burden of what we are carrying in our minds at this time. One’s ability to manage emotions under pressure can mean the difference between personal crisis and calm.

Stoic philosophy, founded by the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium, is founded on the principle that virtue and happiness can only be attained by submission to destiny and the natural law.[2] Stoics are renowned for their ability to accept and endure challenges without emotion. This philosophy does not encourage the suppression of emotions, but rather the foundations of stoic philosophy are grounded in wisdom, morality, courage and moderation. These virtues also rely on a person being well informed. Since COVID 19 is testing each person's mental state - with their own emotional responses, triggers and risk tolerances - the application of stoic philosophy may help to reduce irrational temptations, such as overstocking toilet paper and non-perishable goods.

Our future

Combined with reflective practice and critical thinking, the ideology of the stoic philosophy is well suited to the COVID 19 environment. By no means, will you be Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius when the pandemic is over.[3] Equally, you are not likely to be wiser in global economics though we may endure another global recession[4]. The important thing you will derive from your expedition into these ‘ventures of thought’ is a better understanding of what is really happening in the world. This will probably be helpful to your personal and professional life. Emotions are likely to be more moderate, coming from a logical and informed point-of-view, and relationships will benefit. Remember, awareness conquers fear. COVID 19 can be dangerous to people but we shouldn’t fear it. We should become aware through reflective practice, critical thinking and being a little stoic; every person shoulders that responsibility.