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Covid-19, fear and Grug’s conundrum: What about our children?

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Prof Nico de Bruyn is Associate Professor and researcher within the Mammal Research Institute of the Department of Zoology & Entomology, University of Pretoria. He is the Principal Investigator of the Marion Island Marine Mammal Programme (www.marionseals.com), a four-decade-long, uninterrupted international research programme in the Sub-Antarctic. He has three young children.

We cannot hide from this virus indefinitely, because our species cannot operate like that. We need to allow living, and living is deliberate risk-taking. My kids riding their bikes to Grandma’s house holds innumerable risks. But I cannot confine them to my cave because that is not living.

I am a university-based research scientist, specialising in large mammal ecology, specifically interested in population demography. My academic interest has been pricked by the demographic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the various modelling scenarios my colleagues have developed.

I could try to address the many “what-ifs” by comparing the projected consequences of various actions. Many arguments support hard lockdowns (as in South Africa), citing the dramatic consequences of not fearing the Covid-19 virus. Many arguments call for the end of lockdowns, citing broader economic consequences.

I could provide an evidence-based opinion either way, or sit on the fence, and there will be vehement arguments, and even personal attacks from those with differing opinions. I have started on countless drafts, with the view on publishing something that could help us think clearly through this crisis. All these drafts are in the wastepaper bin, because they never quite communicated the core of my current conviction. This may be because I am not clear on why I feel conflicted and confused. I cannot quite pinpoint what, of all the facets of this chaotic scenario, is the core underlying bother.

Last night I watched the animated film, The Croods (again after some years), with my young children. The stars of the movie, Grug, Eep and Guy provided the clarity that I had been searching for. The caring caveman father Grug’s sole purpose was to protect his brood from the constant colourful dangers of their prehistoric world. Eep, his daughter, is rebelliously curious about what lies beyond the confines of this protective sphere. She meets Guy, a lonely young caveman on a mission to find a better world, away from the imminent threats of the apocalyptic demise of their own known world. The narrative is simple, and with the backdrop of our own Covid-19 induced global “apocalypse”, the realisation of my own struggle with what is happening became instantly and painfully clear.

Fear.

The conflicting arguments for and against “protective actions” are most effective when the worst-case scenarios are portrayed as the most likely ones. Fearful humans are easier to control, because fear trumps common sense. We are collectively afraid because people are dying from this virus, and social media feeds upon this fear, creating hysteria. Many more people are dying from cancer, heart disease, accidents, other illness and starvation, yet no mass hysteria arises. Global problems of climate change, poverty and conflict intensify such mortalities in various ways; some being exacerbated by reactions to Covid-19. Why do we not react with such fear to these continuing problems? Perhaps we understand that fear is likely to intensify their negative consequences.

This is not to say #stayathome is cowardly. It does not mean lockdown is good or bad. Simply, we cannot allow our decisions to be dictated by fear. The light is disappearing from many sparkling eyes around the world. What does the future hold? How are we going to recover from this virus and our reaction to it? Too much rhetoric is based on, or reinforced by, fear. What are we teaching our children? Grug wants us to stay in our caves, but Eep rightly says that is no way to live.

We cannot hide from this virus indefinitely, because our species cannot operate like that. We need to allow living, and living is deliberated risk-taking. My kids riding their bikes to Grandma’s house holds innumerable risks. I am gripped by fear and anxiety every time I think about these risks and their consequences, BUT I cannot confine them to my cave because that is not living and is frightfully unfair and selfish. I therefore assess all the available data, I do a brisk subconscious risk analysis, and I make a decision. If I dictated all decisions by my fears, my children would live a frightfully unhappy life.

Our children need a happy future, learning to face dangers with clarity, because a life lived in fear is not what we want for them. We have a responsibility as parents not to make decisions based on fear of this virus. We need to make considered recommendations based on available evidence of risk that ensure our children do not hide in their caves when the next challenge arrives. Let us consider all evidence and make decisions based on the future of our species.

Available evidence of global risk to humanity does not elevate Covid-19 beyond the threat of other risks, and certainly does not approach the risk of our reaction to it. We venerate courage in books, films and depictions of our own history. We deplore fear, yet we are feeding it to ourselves and those dependent on us. DM

Prof Nico de Bruyn is Associate Professor and researcher within the Mammal Research Institute of the Department of Zoology & Entomology, University of Pretoria. He is the Principal Investigator of the Marion Island Marine Mammal Programme (www.marionseals.com), a four-decade long, uninterrupted international research programme in the Sub-Antarctic. He has three young children.

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