Here’s a scenario that will be familiar to workers all over the world, commonplace at least up until a couple of weeks ago. Your colleague doesn’t arrive for work. You’re carrying out your duties as normal, but murmurs soon grow around you as to your missing colleague’s whereabouts. Eventually someone confirms they’ve called in sick, and half the team springs into action: a kangaroo court is convened, with the urgent objective of ascertaining whether or not your colleague is really ill. Their past performance is re-examined, their commitment to the workplace is called into doubt. Someone has their phone out and is checking their Instagram to see if they were out last night, the presumption being that no one has ever developed an illness the day after a night out that wasn’t related to how much they drank at the club. Your boss looks on approvingly, reassured that their work of policing the habits of their team appears to be taking care of itself. All of this of course contributes to an atmosphere in which people feel reluctant to call in sick, and when taken together with the lack of proper sick pay provision that’s common in the US and UK in particular, these conditions mean that thousands of people force themselves into work when they’re unwell every day.
In a pandemic of course, the effect of this attitude is thrown into relief - every person who goes into work while they’re unwell risks infecting tens of others in the course of their work. In a snowball effect we all find sickeningly familiar by now, the people they infected will go on to infect a hundred, the next tier will be thousands, and on it goes.
In the political economy we were used to up until a few weeks ago, the injunction to put concerns for one’s own health secondary to the need to keep going as normal, keep being ‘productive’ – in short, to keep going in to work – is one we’ve become habituated to. So when governments around the world began to formulate responses to the outbreak of COVID-19, they found the habits of workers to be one of the first and biggest obstacles to tackling it. In the space of a couple of weeks, advice went from ‘stay at home if you feel ill’, to ‘stay at home except for essential trips’, ramping up from a general feeling of ‘treat this as important but carry on’, to ‘we all really have to take this seriously now’. But it seems that some world leaders have struggled to follow their own advice. Ambiguity around the disease and its effects could risk the lives of more people; the actions of politicians have possibly never been more scrutinized than they are now, and likewise, our behaviors have never been so important – so the examples set by global leaders in how they personally manage and publicize their experiences of COVID-19 are themselves part of a network of social contagion.
Politicians appear to have been particularly prone to contracting the virus. Sarah Boseley at The Guardian puts this down to their reluctance to “lead via video link”, and their relative propensity to meet lots of people in the course of their work. There are other factors at work here too: world leaders and their cabinet members are more likely to travel internationally, and far more likely to spend their time in larges cities, which have proven themselves to be the most effective petri dishes for viral exchange.
When a public figure contracts the disease, the general protocol seems to be to update the public via a press release or video. Oddly, nearly every high profile person diagnosed so far has taken it upon themselves to emphasize that their symptoms are ‘mild’, or even that they’re ‘in good health’, a contradictory message to add to one’s announcement that they’ve contracted a disease currently responsible for the deaths of around 36,000 people.
The Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson, posted a video to Twitter on Friday morning, confirming that he had tested positive and was self-isolating, but foregrounded that key word ‘mild’, and insisting he was continuing to lead the government’s response to the virus. Prince Charles too emphasized that his symptoms were mild, and Miami’s Mayor Francis Suarez has maintained he feels ‘healthy’ despite his positive diagnosis.
It’s true that the range of symptoms for COVID-19 is broad: up to 80% of those contracting the disease do experience only mild symptoms and are able to recover without any further medical treatment, while around one in six are liable to become seriously ill. But politicians need to keep in mind that while they are statistically likely to fall into the larger bracket whose symptoms do not progress beyond mild, the impact of their words is outsized. Boris Johnson, for example, became the UK’s most high profile case overnight, and in turn his experience of the illness is likely to be the test case upon which most people will draw to contextualize the disease, and how serious they judge it to be. Many people who were already on the fence about the severity of the pandemic – perhaps they think it’s all been blown out of proportion and that it’s no more dangerous than the flu – will see Johnson’s announcement that he is able to carry on working not only as the reassuring message about his capacity as a leader as it is surely intended, but as proof that they were right, it’s not that big a deal after all and it’s probably safe to go to work or to go outside to meet friends.
Equally, many companies are currently engaged in exploiting the ambiguity around ‘essential’ service providers in order to stay open, thus forcing their employees to continue working rather than have access to the government’s furlough scheme. High profile ‘mild’ cases may well bolster this behavior too; if bosses see people emphasizing their ability to carry on working through the disease, then especially when they stand to gain from their workers’ labor, they are likely to expect their workers to be more willing to risk contracting the disease, or even to work through symptoms, directly contradicting the government’s advice.
This is not to say, of course, that politicians should say that they have severe symptoms when they don’t, or that it’s necessary to cause panic by having people disappear wholesale from public life without clarification. It is important though, for high profile figures to recognize the example that they set, and that the severity of a pandemic that is allowed to rip through a population at large is far more risky than any personal concern we might have for them. Their desire to reassure us about their own health is not just misplaced, it’s irresponsible, and it could be contagious.