Dr. Kris Naudts, psychiatrist, did statistical modeling with large data sets for genetic studies in the past, and he has been closely following the news about infection curves of Covid-19.
His curiosity is motivated in part by his medical training and heightened by his current role as CEO of the travel information startup, Culture Trip, which has received more than $100 million in funding.
"There is a lot of attention being paid by politicians to flattening the infection curve," he told me. "But what's not being modeled is the panic curve. Nothing spreads faster than panic, but its impact [resulting from Covid-19] is not well understood."
I agree that a parallel tracking of people's levels of fearfulness -- and how to effectively address it -- is an important element of this pandemic that doesn't get enough attention from policy makers and the media. And Naudts fears that as more people are affected, the impact of panic could exacerbate the situation.
Culture Trip provides original destination recommendations and content for travelers to every country in the world; it overflows with lists of top 10 restaurants, recommendations for off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods to visit, and even some fairly specific, specialized areas of interest, such as the best movie houses in Beijing.
Having correspondents and offices around the world and observing traffic on his website from different countries has helped Naudts pinpoint trends in various regions and gauge people's psychological state of mind as the virus spreads.
And he sees patterns.
"First, there's denial, followed by irritation, even anger that conveniences are less available. They're angry that they can't travel," he said.
"Then comes fear. But it doesn't last forever. In fact, it's followed by a heightened interest in life. They look for inspiring content. What has interested me is the very strong interest in virtual museum tours. I did think there would be a move into escapism, but I didn't expect that. Not everyone, but a solid group."
Certain patterns are moving around the world with the virus. He said there is high anxiety in London, where he was when we spoke, but he's made hopeful by what he's seeing in China, where for the first time recently no new infections occurred through local transmission.
"The panic curve does flatten, for sure," he said. "And the thirst for travel content does come back. What we're seeing is that normal is not quite normal. There's a redefined normal. But the biggest learning from China is that even if there's the feeling that normal might not be like normal before, there's optimism, an irrepressible desire to reengage with life."
While many patterns are consistent, he also noticed variances based on a nation's history and the experiences of its citizens.
"In China, they had the experience with SARS, and so their response was colored by that," he said. "And their political system is unique. In Israel, the population is well versed in dealing with surprises and the sometimes harsh national measures taken to deal with threats. They react quickly. I would imagine that in Russia, the government would rally the population in support of the motherland. And in most of Europe and in America, fighting the virus is viewed through the metaphor of war."
I found Naudts' analysis of patterns a good reminder that, as is true in more normal times, we can sometimes look forward and backwards in time simply by looking beyond our own borders. While we in the U.S. are seeing more and more aspects of our society shut down or become overstressed, things are opening and returning to a semblance of normal in China. And we look nervously into the past when we see countries that are just now beginning to react to the pandemic.
What I feel might ultimately be seen as a lasting outcome of this crisis -- and the writer Malcom Gladwell reminds us that "What is most beautiful in the world arises from struggle" -- might be that we learn how to be close to one another even when we're apart.
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In reaction to yesterday's column about management-to-staff messaging within a dispersed workforce, Dan Breen, now retired from Travelers Insurance, sent me this video link as a possible antidote to "the weight -- physically, emotionally, financially, spiritually" -- that we may feel at this moment. Take a moment to watch. It's a timely reminder that even when we're apart, we can still make beautiful music together.