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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 15-Sep-19


Sunday 15-Sep-19

How to stop an epidemic with considerate kindness rather than strict policing

Imagine you are a key case worker in a centre for disease control (CDC). A deadly disease has appeared in an isolated incident. You need to quarantine all affected. How do you go about it? Rapidly identify the people affected and force them as necessary into a strict, hospitalized quarantine.

Consider this story for a different approach.

In 2015 in Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, an Ebola outbreak was past its peak. The local population were still terrified of this gruesome killer, which was a problem. The only way to treat the disease was containment. But the problem was that people didn't want to own up to having any contact with this killer disease as this would mark them out, socially, for a long time. Worse, the first case had come into contact with a local gang, who certainly didn't want to cooperate with the authorities.

Imagine you are a member of the local CDC, and it is your job to persuade the gang to collaborate. What do you do? Get the police to round them up? What if one person eluded them? Now you have a potentially infectious person on the run, who could spread the disease far and wide.

What they actually did was wiser than this.

First of all they just made contact with the gang to establish that they were not a threat and not police. Then they quietly explained the situation and asked them to voluntarily go into quarantine. It was scary for the gang members, but with empathetic persuasion they all agreed. Except one, who disappeared. Again, with diligence, patience and social concern, they found him through a path of trust and relationships, and eventually persuaded him that it was a strong man who faced danger and went into quarantine.

In the end, all the gang members were unaffected by the disease, but it could have been far, far worse. The outbreak was contained before it spread and many lives were saved. And it was done by dedicated relationship-building, not just grabbing the people involved.

There's a lesson here for more mundane situations, such as in change projects in the workplace. In one approach you plan every detail and frogmarch people through the process. In the other, you are more considerate, listening and coaxing. Even when there are laggards who resist until the end, you never give up, always listening, empathizing and seeking to persuade gently rather than by command.

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