Things can get really bad, really fast, way faster than regular people will notice
Most people don’t pay that much attention to the news
Most people who do read news get their info from journalists focused on a narrow range of topics with a narrow range of approaches, reporting the views of a narrow range of experts who are not incentivised to be particularly accurate when making predictions on questions like “will this bad new disease come to your town and infect or kill people you care about”
People also know that the media has a history of hyping up bad news which calibrated readers are used to discounting, and that’s assuming they read the alarming article about a foreign disease in the first place given that articles about foreigners get little attention.
Even after all that, if you do finally see something that you can’t wish away or ignore, something which tells you that something bad really is coming, taking it seriously means looking silly if the crisis turns out not to be a big deal.
The cumulative effect of all this is that right before an impending crisis, life will look very normal and people will not be panicking.
37 days before the UK government threw the entire country into lockdown and barred people from going outside for anything other than a short list of permitted activities, people who stocked up their pantries were curiosity items
There were still breezy, innumerate articles laughing about the very idea of dying of covid, 8 weeks before a thousand British people per day would be suffocating to death.
Shops still looked normal, and politicians were still operating on “don’t panic people” mode, unaware that a bit of panic was probably needed. Part of this was possibly because many journalists in countries headed for serious problems wrongly assumed that their governments had a plan to stop the spread of the disease and wouldn’t find out for several weeks that this was not the case, but even so there seemed to be more concern about people being too worried than too little.
Should we have expected this? Panic even at a moment of disaster is rare- think of all the people calmly walking home across bridges closed to car traffic on 9/11- but expert worries about panic were very common in the West as the virus took hold and spread. Looking unruffled is higher status than visible anxiety, and with journalism salaries dropping, status rewards are a big part of the attraction of a media career.
So next time disaster is looming, we probably will not see much evidence of it in the emotional reactions of regular people who will mostly not know anything is amiss, nor from members of the media who are professionally and personally incentivised to colour within the lines, regardless of their private worries. Even Kelsey Piper at Vox, one of the best writers on the pandemic and whose early warnings were very influential, experienced a lag between privately becoming concerned and publishing those worries.
By the time people know something is up and have distinguished the signal from the ongoing background noise of hyped up threats, it’s likely only a very short while before real disaster strikes.
This feeling that the status quo must continue and panic must be avoided is likely to infect the government and media as much as anyone else, so the most important thing we can do “next time” is to raise the alarm, talk loudly about what we are doing to prepare, and make taking preventative action feel “normal” and acceptable. You never know who might be listening: