Modern societies were built on the successful management of risk at an everyday level built on the principle that if individuals trust others, it will pose minimal, if any, harm to them and that public institutions exist to police are safe public spaces.
When encountered with a threat at an individual level – like crossing a street with heavy traffic, paragliding during a holiday or deciding to change the city for a new job – risk mitigation tends to rely on information, social precedent and norms, imparting a sense of control and choice over the situation. These are usually calculated actions considered in the hope that it would enable individuals to unlock opportunities and potential growth or rewards.
But at the social level, where dominant risk affects communities at a global level with far-reaching impacts – like environmental pollution, rising sea level causing floods and sinking coastal cities around the globe – our sense of control and choice at an individual level becomes void. Such situations require expert intervention and direction, especially from social, political, and medical institutions and individuals need to feel that they can trust them.
Today, science and technology are the biggest contributors to any risk involving a situation, be it at an individual or societal level. These disciplines aid in our understanding of the natural world, allowing us to design risk aversive interventions where needed. This is how we can trust in the food supply chain to provide us with sustenance so that we don’t have to grow our food at home, in our political systems to manage public safety, in our healthcare systems to keep us alive, in our medical and scientific institutions to generate knowledge and help us develop tools for greater human endeavors.
In each of these scenarios, individual or collective, the risk is real – the key difference lies in the response and whether it’s mediated through social, cultural, or structural processes.
However, new risks like COVID-19 exposes the limitations of the existing systems and processes that we have relied on thus far. The acute proliferation of COVID-19 across the globe has clearly shown us that this pandemic cannot be managed through known processes and structures, requiring new systems to tackle the uncertainness of the current situation.
The fatal pandemic has caused waves of widespread disorder involving fear and panic. People are being told that not only does the outside world pose extreme danger and risk, people also pose a social hazard to others. Countries around the world have gone into lockdown, implementing “social distancing” measures and framing it as a collective responsibility to re-establish safety and security for all.
While a more permanent solution is being sought at an institutional level, in the absence of a reliable solution and a prevailing sense that current actions can only slow the spread of the virus and not solve it, we can see an emergence of counterculture, devised at an individual and collective level to provide a sense of security and calm.
The emerging counterculture is mostly observed at 3 levels:
- Bound in faith and religion
- Bound in new rituals
- Bound in Science
Risk Mitigation Bound in Religion
Before nation-states were built up, and welfare systems were organized to distribute shared resources to citizens, where did people turn to for protection and assurance? In the continuum of cultures, religions have always existed – organized or otherwise.
Two different religious perspectives currently dictate attitudes towards Covid-19.
The first, that a pandemic is a pre-ordained form of suffering for human sins e.g. consumption, destruction of the environment. The second, that it is a collective test of faith sent from above.
Some forms of reaction to the first perspective have emerged. For example, some Muslims have resorted to ‘tawakkul’ (spiritual reliance) to protect the righteous – “Allah is protecting those who abide by their obligations.” The following behaviors include dialing up the frequency and variety of ritual repertoire as a spiritual shield against the virus, such as performing daily ablutions and prayers with increased vigor.
Elsewhere in India, prayer and exhortations to the gods have peaked, as it did during the 1918 flu pandemic (and other societal catastrophes). Chanting sessions, yoga, cow urine, and cow dung baths have been part of the slew of purported Hindu cures flooding official media channels. The culmination of these efforts is aimed at distinguishing oneself as worthy of being spared from the virus.
Forms of reaction to the second perspective that of humanity being tested are more nuanced. Keeping the faith includes indoctrinating a stoic/active approach. Stoic in the form of ‘hunkering down’ and strengthening personal faith, while at the same time, being active in helping out the larger community.
For organized religions, social distancing regulations have created a void in which places of worship used to fill spiritually and socially. The dis-embedding of the believer to both religious figures of authority and community further heightens this insecurity. To this, many have sought religious worship online and solely into the domestic sphere.
For example, a Google Trends search saw an increase in Catholic terms such as ‘Pope Francis’ rise by 350% in the last 3 months, and queries such as ‘coronavirus prayer’ increasing. Pope Francis’s prayer for protection against Covid-19 was viewed more than 200k times since March. Pew Research Centre also found an increase in non-believers turning to prayer, a 24% increase from before the outbreak.
Efforts to strengthen community assistance have also taken place concurrently. Mosques worldwide, such as the Rahmatan Lil Alamin Foundation in Singapore, have started fundraising efforts to channel resources to the needy. Similarly, Pope Francis’ Commission for Covid-19 utilizing Caritas Internationalis aims to provide health care services globally. Personal involvement in such charitable behaviors is also seen as proactive faith ‘in action’.
Risk Mitigation bound in Science
A Canadian blogger reviewing her new COVID routine wrote – As the COVID-19 pandemic forces us to give up old routines for new ones, it has become a part of our family’s daily routine to gather on our front porch every evening at 7 p.m., to join in the neighborhood chorus of clapping and pot-banging. This phenomenon, undertaken as a means of acknowledging our community’s healthcare workers, and the good work they are doing has been picking up volume and momentum with every passing day.
COVID 19 is a health emergency and as experts and field specialists, health workers are seen as key to deliverance from the current situation. Many similar communal shout-outs have been witnessed across continents, celebrating the efforts of the new frontline warriors.
Iran recently announced that the country will designate medical staff who have died from COVID-19 as “martyrs”, giving them the same honor as slain soldiers.
Parallel to the popular sentiment, Google also launched a Doodle to thank scientific researchers as well as health care professionals, captioned, “To all the public health workers and researchers in the scientific community, thank you.”
Not just at the communal level, but countries that followed risk mitigation strategy by relying on and following the counsel of trained physicians, nurses, and public health officials have been able to better manage the spread of the pandemic. One such example is New Zealand: Shaun Hendy, professor at the Faculty of Science at Auckland University, says this strong working relationship with the science community has put New Zealand at an advantage compared with countries which “have had difficult relationships with their science community in recent times.”
Science and expertise of health practitioners are a source of hope and promise of the future – potentially altering people’s perspective towards science and medicine.
What is unknown is that once the pandemic settles and the curve flattens, would there be a strengthened stroke of reliance, faith, and trust in medical systems, and will medical expertise gain even more patronage from people and government?
Risk Mitigation Bound in Everyday Rituals
Anthropologists have long observed that people across cultures tend to perform more rituals in times of uncertainty. Stressful events such as warfare, environmental threat, and material insecurity are often linked with spikes in ritual activity. Rituals are not based on science or religion but are an effective way to relieve anxiety and stress as it provides a sense of control and predictability. It imposes stability in a chaotic everyday life.
Enforced physical distancing has compelled people to recalibrate their routines and lifestyle. This has resulted in the emergence of new rituals, as individuals and collective community, to introduce order and stability in everyday life.
Across the globe, we observe that most rituals are being adopted to gain a sense of connection, purpose, and motivation in this new state of being.
While all forms of socialization have shifted to virtual platforms, the desire for real human connection has intensified. In an attempt to reinforce the communal connection, imaginative collective rituals are emerging that allow people to participate in unison – giving a sense of belonging and acceptance while practicing physical distancing.
In one of the twenty-plus mass-quarantine centers in Wuhan, the megacity where this coronavirus first emerged, women, turned to karaoke to lift the spirits of sequestered groups. In Iran, another of the COVID-19 “red zones,” doctors and nurses—individually and in groups— participated in a coronavirus dance challenge, posting videos of themselves dancing to lively music in hazmat suits.
People under lockdown are stepping into the balcony at night, opening the window and clapping and cheering for health-care workers confronting the pandemic. The ritual migrated from the epicenter of Wuhan, which went global and diffused to London, Milan, Madrid, Paris, New York, Melbourne, Istanbul, and other cities ‘hunkering down’.
Purpose-driven rituals, on the other hand, are mostly driven by the need to gain a sense of normalcy and control in the quarantine routine.
A third-grade teacher in Iran, Khuzestan Province, improvised to keep her classes going online after schools were closed nationwide. Stuck at home, she used the side of her refrigerator as a whiteboard. With a blue marker, she wrote out the rules, with diagrams, to explain how to calculate the area of squares, rectangles, and triangles.
At a more mundane level, with endless days spent at home, families are observed to use rituals to divide the time into sessions such as “movie night” with their families or “Lego time” with their kids as customs to cope with anxiety and create certainty.
Many individual and communal rituals have been adopted across the globe in the hope to motivate people, uplifting mood, and create quarantine delight.
From comedian Jimmy Kimmel and his wife encouraging quarantined people to hold formal Fridays, dressing up for dinner even if they were alone, to the outburst of new rooftop and balcony culture, neighborhoods are coming together to strengthen the sense of solidarity and remind each other that no one is alone in this crisis.
In Conclusion, while most people are still adjusting to a new way of life that requires physical distancing, there is an evident surfacing of new behaviors and countercultures in the hope to manage and mitigate risk. While some of these new rituals may be temporary, others may become a part of the new everyday life post-pandemic. This would inadvertently have an impact on consumer consumption and social behavior – while some may attempt to return to normalcy, others may find comfort in the adoption of risk-averse behavior, codifying some of the aforementioned emerging counterculture behavior, rituals, and mindset. As brands, we need to keep a keen eye out on these new adopted rituals and behaviors to be able to adapt our products, schemes, and services so that it remains relevant in the new lives of the consumers.
Shilpi Sud, Lead, Quantum Consumer Solutions: Insight & Design Strategy
Ri An QUEK, Lead, Culture Insights, Quantum Consumer Solutions: Insight & Design Strategy
Danielle Hong, Culture and Ethnography – Associate, Quantum Consumer Solutions: Insight & Design Strategy
Shijie Wang, Culture Associate, Quantum Consumer Solutions: Insight & Design Strategy
This article is accumulated by Quantum Consumer Solutions, a human-centered design strategy company to find new lenses into human motivations, behavior, and thinking to discover the human truth.