Supplemental: Rumors & Resilience

Issue 1.1 | How to handle rumors, and how to be prepared


Many of you are joining us after the first issue was sent on March 14th. If you’d like to read it, click here.

My plan is to issue these newsletters every Saturday, with supplementals like this one when there are urgent new developments. I meant things like this:

While we’re likely to see more localities eventually adopting measures similar to the orders issued around San Francisco, I think it is unlikely the U.S. will issue a national equivalent, at least in the near future. It is at the core of the country’s emergency response policy and culture to defer to local, county, and state governments until and unless they are overwhelmed by an emergency. That said, it is unclear how our emergency response system, which counts on mutual assistance among states as well as federal assistance, will stand up to its first true 50-state disaster.

One thing I’m watching for: so far in the U.S., the pandemic has hit hardest in states with some of the country’s most resource-rich governments. The complexion of this crisis will change as it intensifies in poorer states especially in the South and Appalachia.

In this supplemental issue I’ll talk about how to deal with rumors, how to be more resilient, and how those two things are connected.

// A Quick Link Roundup

// Rumors & Resilience

/ How to survive a flood of information

It’s an uncertain time. There’s a disease spreading, but we can only estimate the extent of the spread. It seems important to stop from getting sick ourselves or spreading the virus to others, but there is some mystery still about how the virus is transmitted. We know the symptoms can be serious and require medical attention, but there’s a lot of uncertainty around how individual people are supposed to get treated. We know the government is taking some actions meant to slow the spread, but don’t know what those measures will look like or when they might be implemented. We know it’s important to have supplies at home, but don’t really know what supplies we’ll need.

It’s a perfect environment for rumors to spread. Things you hear from a friend. Things your friend heard from a friend whose friend works for an important-sounding institution. Rumors make us feel like we have inside information. They act as social currency. They make us feel like we have some special understanding about a situation that otherwise seems outside of our control.

But rumors in an emergency are extremely volatile and dangerous. They can be misleading individually, and produce conflict and harm in the aggregate. Because you can’t know the origin of a rumor, and because it’s not public information, it’s almost impossible to test. You have no idea how the information changed as it traveled from person to person to you. You have no idea where it will go after you spread it to someone else, and how it will change in the telling.

So don’t listen to rumors, and don’t pass rumors you’ve heard to other people. When it comes to information about the pandemic, stick to trusted public sources.

Public health information on Covid-19

Here are some sources of public health information I’m reading as I think through how to keep myself, family, and community safe:

How to consume the news

As they say, news has a kind of mystery. Especially in a crisis, it’s easy to get swallowed up in the coverage, especially if you add informal news from social media. But use caution here, too. Too much consumption of news about an emergency can be harmful. One study conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings found that the more time people spent with media about the bombings, the more likely they were to report acute stress. Significantly, people who spent 6 hours or more a day with bombing-related media reported higher levels of stress than people who experienced the bombing directly, in person.

Right now, in the U.S. anyway, a lot of news about the pandemic is about spread and government response and speculation about what might come next (disclosure: I don’t watch television news, except clips that circulate to me through social media. I once heard Chris Wallace at a public speaking engagement say he avoided social media at all costs, and that “if it’s important enough, it will seep out into old guy news.” I feel the same way about television news, in reverse).

Soon enough we’ll start seeing more media focusing on the effects of the itself as it takes hold, and a lot of this will be distressing. Limit your time with this kind of content. Focus instead on news that will be empowering to you: new information that you can directly use, or that helps you better understand the broader situation we’re in.

/ A few words about resilience

I want to devote a full newsletter to preparedness tips at a later date, though events might overtake us. So for specifics, let me recommend this page of advice from the CDC about how to get your home ready for Covid.

A frustration a lot of people have with preparedness guides like the one I linked to above is that it’s hard to get your mind around what you might need to have on hand and why. People tend to have a difficult time thinking productively about potentially disruptive futures. Either they can’t imagine the details of what a future emergency would look like, or they get trapped in doom loops of all of the things that could possibly go wrong, and end up preparing haphazardly or not at all.

The Anna Karenina principle is helpful here. Tolstoy tells us that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” In preparing for an emergency, you’ll never exhaust the catalog of things that can go wrong. The universe of things that need to go right is much smaller and more manageable.

Basic pragmatic preparedness steps:

  1. Make a list of all the activities your household needs to do on a daily basis. Things like eating meals, taking medications, getting rid of garbage, going to work (or working from home), doing personal and household hygiene, exercise, taking care of your pets.

  2. Go down this list and for each activity record all of the things you need to carry out that activity for the day. In this list, include the people who are responsible for these activities, and keep in mind that there might be more than one working together, and that some of the people you need aren’t in your household (e.g. to work from home on a shared project, you need your coworker).
    As best you can, where appropriate, estimate the *amounts* of things you need to carry out these activities.

  3. Think and write through what would happen in each instance if you didn’t have access to the things or people you need to carry out the activities you outlined in step 1, and come up with one or more practical alternatives/substitutions where possible. If there is no substitution possible, think & write through alternate ways of getting hold of the things you need.

  4. Repeat this for a weekly, and monthly time frame.

That should help you be prepared with supplies in your household. But you should also make sure you think through a plan for, as this excellent James Hamblin piece in The Atlantic puts it, what you will do if you start coughing. Again, for tips on that, see the CDC link I posted in the previous section of this newsletter.

// A closing word

Imperial College London released a report on modeling the future of this pandemic on March 16th that gave me significant pause (see PDF here). I don’t want to write too much about it now because it’s a complicated document and there’s a lot to think through. But I highly recommend reading it for yourself if you have any doubts about the seriousness of the thing we’re going through, or if you think it will be over in the next few weeks.