The Perils of Groupthink and Enforced Isolation

I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for propaganda posters in the old Russian communist style. You know, the ones with a group of hale and hearty workers gazing intently into the rising sun with fists raised in determination. Whatever you may think of communist regimes, don’t such images stir something within you, a delight in the striving towards a common goal, the harnessing of people power?

This week something similar stirred within me, as our PM thanked us all for doing our parts to flatten the curve of this pandemic. “We’re all in this together”, was his message. After two weeks of suffering the flu, at an extremely bad time to be suffering the flu, it was something I desperately needed to hear. Just those few words changed my outlook, allowing acceptance of the uncertainty and fear of recent times, with the understanding that we are all going to help each other get through this.

Bring on the social distancing, the closure of beaches, the self-isolation. I can face it because we’re all in the same boat. Together, we can do this.

Here we are, collectively working so hard to do the right thing, isn’t it infuriating when a few break the rules, developed for the common good? How dare those people go out and have fun? Let’s start fining them. And how dare returning travellers go home instead of quarantining themselves on entry to the country? Don’t they care that they may be spreading the virus around? Much better to bus them to hotels and get the police to enforce quarantine. Now they complain, while being put up in 5-star hotels at the public expense? How dare they?

No, wait. Stop. Think.

The danger of groupthink is that in the strength of our collective determination we can be so sure we are doing the right thing, we don’t even allow dissenting opinions a voice. We start to see things in black and white “you’re either with us or against us” and neglect the nuances of a situation. We have no patience for people who don’t abide by our rules, so we send in the police to enforce them. Police who who exist in a rigid hierarchy, and are expected to dutifully uphold the law according to the instructions of their superiors. If they’re told “keep these people inside their rooms”, that is what they are going to do, without question.

Now here’s the thing about isolation. Depending on your state of mind, and your individual needs, it can be a pleasant rest with unlimited movies and free food, or it can be torture. I really mean that: torture. Isolation from other people and from nature, especially if enforced against one’s will, can do horrible things to the mind. I don’t know about real life prisons, but in the movies, the isolation ward is where they send the troublemakers to punish them, or to break their spirit.

Consider this:

  • Some amongst those in enforced quarantine may require medication but have no way to get their prescription filled.
  • Some of them may be carers for others, and by keeping them locked up we may be indirectly creating a situation of neglect for those they would otherwise be caring for.
  • Some of them may have mental health issues, which are likely to take a severe downturn in solitary confinement, leading to spikes in anxiety, depression, panic attacks, or worse.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the latest efforts to flatten the curve – far from it, I’m supportive of placing arrivals from overseas in quarantine, in general. It’s what we have to do. I just think we need to be really careful with how we go about it, if we’re not going to cause suffering to a few susceptible individuals. Do we want to inadvertently create a situation of human rights abuse?

Here are my suggestions as to what “being really careful” means:

  • We should not be isolating people without their consent. (And I’m sure most will consent, if provided with enough information, delivered with trust and respect).
  • We should be listening to the quarantees concerns about the situation, and following up to make sure they and their dependants have all they need to maintain good health, according to their individual needs.
  • Finally, and most importantly, no-one suffering a mental health condition should be placed in solitary isolation, under any circumstances. Please don’t do that.

In summary, here’s my message on enforced quarantine and isolation: Stop. Think. Proceed – with great care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “The Perils of Groupthink and Enforced Isolation”

  1. I have to disagree on this one. I think we are considering needs as much as it is possible. We are in unknown waters, unchartered territory and trusting in people to do the right thing is hard. It takes one person to make so many others sick, one person, and many of us are only now understanding how serious the situation is.
    We are only now realising we are in this together, and we are only now accepting we have to do what is best for everyone first, and the goverment is trying very hard to ensure we are safe and taken care of. I think they are trying very hard not to make the mistakes made overseas and we need to support and respect that.
    Of course it will be hard on some people. I have elderly relatives in Italy. It scares me. I am cut off from two of my children and other family members. I suffer from depression and isolation is not healthy for me but right now, right this minute is about all of us and not one of us. I don’t believe we can use the term solitary confinement, not in that sense. I do think there are some things to be ironed out but people are checking on neighbours, people are ringing each other, people are understanding there is short term pain for long term gain. This is about us all surving. And, I repeat we are in unknown waters and yes things may be harder for some more than others but if we work together we can help those that need that little extra. Let sort out the major things first though so we can reach that stage.

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  2. Sorry, but you are completely in the wrong here. This is not a matter of groupthink, but working together to make a disastrous situation as survivable as possible. Maybe you don’t yet grasp how serious this disease is. No one has used the word “plague” yet, but if you know history, you know there really isn’t any difference between this “pandemic” and a plague. As for solitary confinement, you have no idea how far off base that comparison is. Even under the strictest of rules that are increasingly going to be put in place, no one is going to be forbidden to use the phone or email. There are all sorts of way for people to stay in contact, to get their presciptions, etc. Yes, some people will suffer from the isolation, but is everyone else supposed to be put at risk for the few? Please think through what you’ve said. A great deal of what we call civilization depends on our sometimes being forced to do thing we don’t want to do or forbidden to do things we want to do. The mere fact of enforcement does not equal a police state.

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  3. You make a good case. It’s hard to find that balance of doing as much as we need to do (and I agree strict measures are required) while avoiding more suffering, as far as we can. My point is that enforced quarantine needs to handled carefully, and better than it has been so far.
    I do tend to be very trusting of people, expecting that they will do the right thing – but I think they have so far. Most spreading incidents have been caused by people not knowing they carried the virus and therefore not knowing to quarantine themselves. The problem with cruise ship passengers spreading the virus between states was more the result of government failures than individual failures, in allowing people off the ships and not preventing them from flying home. The individuals concerned had not been told otherwise.
    As I said, I’m not against quarantine, it’s more about doing it with respect and support, and understanding that it can be traumatic for some. I don’t see that understanding as yet.

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