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Pandemics and Pandemonium

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

A Global Pandemic

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization crowned COVID-19 -- infamously known as the Corona virus -- a "Global Pandemic." A pandemic is a disease that is spreading in multiple countries around the world at the same time.

So far we've been lucky. None of the health emergencies or potential pandemics that have flirted with our fate in recent years have achieved their deadliest potential. Bird Flu, Swine Flu, Ebola, and Zika sound more like a bad boy band than an actual threat to our existence. We could, however, learn a thing or two from this motley crew's elegant ability to cross borders, cross politics, cross cultures and take bi-partisan, non-discriminatory action.

Pandemics And the Seeds of Panic

So what happens when serious infectious diseases begin to spread? When fearful or corrupt government officials deny that there is a problem, suppress critical information, and block aid from reaching those in need? When international aid organizations are kept underfunded, understaffed, and ineffective due to government bureaucracy? When social sector solutions are conflicted, bureaucratic, ineffective, and "too-little-too-late"?

Roadblocks cost time, and time costs lives. And when lives are at stake, our survival instinct kicks in, and chaos ensues. No government or institution wants to admit they are have a problem or accept that they don't have things under control. But delaying the process - or denying the problem - ends in even more unnecessary deaths and rapid spread of infection. Even if entities do admit they have a problem, no single country has the capacity to beat a global problem on its own.

Global Problems Require Global Solutions

Global problems require global solutions. So any solution has to be organized internationally and collaboratively. It has to be is inclusive, international, and interest-based. It has to design systems that encourage open and honest communications, informal problem-solving, public dialogues, consensus building, prejudice reduction, conflict literacy, and leadership. The global pandemic requires conflict professionals to bring these very specific skillsets to foster communication, build empathy, reduce prejudice, stay connected, and find solutions.

In the same way medical professionals are critical to our physical health, conflict professionals are critical to our community health.

As mediators, peacebuilders, and conflict practitioners, you are equipped with the skills and expertise to respond to the crisis in a similar way that health care professionals respond to the individuals. Conflict practitioners are healers of a different kind, and can help build more resilient communities in four critical ways.

  1. Reduce Panic Panic comes from fear, and fear can lead to a lot of bad decisions. Fear comes from the is the amygdala, two almond-shaped nuggets near the base of your skull, and they're responsible for your emotions. It is responsible for your "Flight, Fight, or Freeze" response, it is lightening-fast, and it is the first part of our brain that's triggered by real and perceived threats. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is at the front of our brain, it's much more evolved, and it's responsible for critical thinking. When you ask questions, you move an idea from the emotional part of your brain to the rational part of your brain, where you can respond with creativity, empathy, and critical thinking. By asking thoughtful questions, you engage the front of the brain, and move people out of the pre-historic emotional part of the brain to the innovative thinking part of the brain. When you ask others the right questions, you can begin to help them process emotions, make meaning, develop empathy, and create solutions.

  2. Eliminate Stigma Stigma comes from a places of blame, shame, and disdain. It creates a sense of “otherness”, "us versus them", and creates a false enemy out of people on the same team. This is a time to attack the problem, not the people. Because the truth is: pandemics do not discriminate, and viruses have no respect for national sovereignty, national boarders, or national agendas. They threaten everyone, everywhere. You can help others understand that it doesn’t matter if the hole is on my side of the boat or yours; because we’re all in the same boat. You can help others abolish false labels that demonize or discriminate people, because keeps us blind to the collective problem rather than inspiring us to create a collaborative solutions.

  3. Build Connections This pandemic unites us all, even if we are separated by walls. In our field, words matter, and the term "social distancing” can lead to unintended consequences of isolation, anxiety, and depression. If we rename it “physical distancing,” we can find new ways of remaining social and stay connected...albeit six feet apart. This pandemic requires not only that we use advanced methods in science and technology, but advance methods in communication, joint problem-solving, collaborative dialogue, and conflict resolution. In a time of mandated isolation, our response needs to be meaningful connection. We have to find ways to maintain our sense of hope, humor, and humanity.

  4. Transform Communities It's time you take your skills and expertise in conflict literacy and leadership to the streets. You can engage proactively, or respond productively, to rebuild communities in the wake of the outbreak. Reach out to survivors, support families who lost loved ones, equip vulnerable groups, and engage community leaders, police officers, faith leaders, and organize community sessions and dialogues to move people forward. All these efforts reduce panic, minimize stigma, increase connection, and rebuild relationships.

You are called to be a leader by offering positive and creative opportunities to connect, communicate, and collaborate. You can play a real role to address these issues collaboratively, intelligently, and creatively - using your capacities to communicate across boarders, solve common problems, have dialogues around difficult issues, and mediate meaningful disputes.

It's key that we build and maintain relationships with diverse communities, sectors, and industries, and walk as one, with each other, not from each other. Corona reminds us that crises have the potential to bring out the very best in us.

We encourage you (while washing your hands vigorously for 20 seconds) to think what you could be doing to connect in different ways - perhaps with a loved one, a close friend, a long-lost cousin, or a community leader. We may not be able to be physically together, but we can still stay emotionally connected.

So reach out! Let's spread a little positivity, because one of the only things more contagious than Corona is your attitude. Be there for those who depend on you for leadership as we walk through the unknown together.


Ken Cloke, founder of Mediators Beyond Borders International, has kindly share a chapter, Global Pandemics, National Borders, and Political Problem Solving, from his book, Politics, Dialogue, and the Evolution of Democracy: How to Discuss Race, Abortion, Immigration, Gun Control, Climate Change, Same Sex Marriage, and Other Hot Topics.

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