COVID-19 Day 33: Fear is a Motivator

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Pocong guards, Indonesia REUTERS/Stringer

When I lived in Hawaii, my wife and I were fortunate enough to attend a ghost tour lead by historian Glen Grant. We stopped in front of Iolani Palace where Glen told the story of Queen Lili’uokalni’s ghost. She was imprisoned there, after a coup d’étet overthrew her kingdom and handed Hawaii over to the United States. Her tormented ghost is said to walk the palace grounds early in the morning.

At that moment, a figure stood up from the bushes nearby which startled us. We were relieved to discover it was just young “mainland” vagrant. He gathered his sleeping bag then quickly headed off down the road. He had overheard Glen telling his ghost story and didn’t want to sleep there anymore.

I was reminded of this story when I read of ghosts being used to keep villagers in Indonesia from violating COVID-19 curfews. In Java, a village youth-group dresses as “Pocong”, ghost spirits from Indonesian folklore. The cosplayers stalk the streets at night to scare any residents who might be gathering outdoors and encourage villagers to stay at home during the pandemic.

The US is not as deeply superstitious a country as Indonesia, but as I saw with that vagrant in Honolulu, we’re still afraid of ghosts stories. Fear and hate are the strongest motivators to action. We see that in social media algorithms that know we are more likely to engage and share posts that anger and outrage us.

Fear also drives us to do irrational things. Fear motivated many to go out and hoard toilet paper and bottled water not even knowing why those items would be useful in the coming pandemic. Fear lead to the irrational prosecution of surfers who were safely distancing themselves on the ocean, in California.

The Administration used fear of millions of deaths to justify the shutdowns of the economy. The news media served up fearful images of COVID-19 deaths in Italy to compel the public to heed social distancing orders. The success or failure of these messages to motivate may explain the differences in per capita deaths in California and New York.

As our leaders begin planning our eventual return to work and school, I can only hope that petty fears aren’t driving their decisions. Fear of losing an election. Fear of recrimination. I hope the only thing they fear is failure.


Queen Lili’okolani, last ruler of the Kingdom of Hawaii.


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