The Tipping Point, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, is defined as “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point.” Which basically means it’s the very moment in which things suddenly and drastically change. Gladwell then places this “tipping” theory within a larger context and breaks down the process by which something becomes an epidemic.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, an epidemic is “an outbreak of disease that spreads quickly and affects many individuals at the same time,” and a pandemic is “a type of epidemic (one with greater range and coverage), an outbreak of a disease that occurs over a wide geographic area and affects an exceptionally high proportion of the population.”
And so naturally, the notion of a tipping point had me thinking about the current Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and whether Gladwell’s theory could still be applied.
We refer to epidemics primarily in a medical sense when discussing the widespread nature of infection and disease, but we also call social trends or collective opinions epidemics when they too spread far and wide. It appears, at least according to Gladwell, that all epidemics follow a similar, predictable trajectory, and that they can be highly contagious, irrespective of whether they’re biological in nature.
In the case of the novel Coronavirus, we first began hearing of it spreading through Wuhan City, China, back in December 2019. CNN Health reported that the first cases occurred somewhere between December 12th and December 29th, 2019 — with some sources claiming the first case actually dates back to November 2019. By the 7th of January 2020, Chinese authorities were able to isolate the virus and identify that it was, in fact, a novel (new) coronavirus, distinct but similar to SARS and MERS. (If you want to learn more about the evolution of a Coronavirus, check out this comprehensive article by The New Yorker.)
“Epidemics are a function of the people who transmit infectious agents, the infectious agent itself, and the environment in which the infectious agent is operating,” writes Gladwell. Suffice it to say, then, that when an epidemic erupts, it’s the result of changes occurring in any or all of those three areas: the people who spread it, the nature of what’s being spread, and the context in which it gets spread. Gladwell refers to these three change agents as the “Law of the Few,” the “Stickiness Factor,” and the “Power of Context.”
1. The Law of the Few (The “Who”)
The theory behind the Law of the Few hinges on the belief that it’s not just the information or illness itself that holds weight, but rather the specific people from whom the information or illness is received. Similar to how Canadian Philosopher Marshall McLuhan believed “the medium is the message,” a requirement of an epidemic is the method in which it spreads — in particular, the specific people who succeed at spreading it. Or, in the case of a virus, the particular people that find themselves infected and spread the contagion so much that an epidemic, or a pandemic, quickly results.
Gladwell distinguishes three main types of people, the few who can spark this type of revolution and “translate” it to the masses, and defines them as being either “Connectors,” “Mavens,” or “Salesmen.” Though not a straightforward task, I’m going to try applying these three styles into the narrative of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Connectors share a large number of social connections and it’s because of them that we get introduced to most of our friends who were once strangers. They are the select few through which many relational connections get forged that otherwise wouldn’t, simply because they know a lot of people — and a lot of people know them. Connectors are the hub of the wheel, and each spoke a different person they know and are connected to. Gladwell describes these people as having diverse interests spreading across various industries. They cast a wide net, making connections in many places, most of which cursory in nature. But for connectors, their weak ties are a source of strength — it is through which they manage to keep so many different doors open at once.
The Connectors in the COVID-19 pandemic are those who traveled, likely overseas, and brought the novel virus into their countries and cities for the very first time. They are those with jobs or families requiring them to cover a vast geographical area, thus carrying the virus back home with them. We commonly refer to them as “patient zero.” While there’s no confirmation as to who the first infected person was in China, there’s speculation the virus spread through an animal market, similar to how its predecessor SARS did in 2003. In the United States, it appears as though patient zero was a man in Seattle who’d recently traveled to the epicenter in Wuhan, China — though it’s reported he did “everything right” in his efforts not to spread the virus. Bloomberg Businessweek reported on March 9, 2020, that the man wore a mask, got tested, stayed in isolation while at home, and was moved to a plastic-enclosed isolation gurney and transferred to a biocontainment ward once his test came back positive. According to that article, more than 60 people had come in contact with patient zero, and all were advised but none developed symptoms. By February 21st, the man was deemed recovered; however, someone must have fallen through the cracks, because new cases popped up that were connected to the original source, and Seattle quickly became the epicenter for the United States’ outbreak.
If Connectors have mastered the art of social interaction, then Mavens are masters of knowledge. Mavens collect information with an especially high need for accuracy. They are laborious in their efforts to learn trends and to decipher patterns. They read more than the average person, and study the intricate details. In comparison to an advertisement telling you what’s good for their own (often monetary) gain, Mavens want to help you learn why something is or isn’t good, in order to help you make an informed choice. As Mavens are interested in knowledge and facts, they’d rather know what’s right than be right. You can trust that when a Maven gives you advice, its source is trustworthy.
I’d argue that Mavens, in the case of COVID-19, are those whom we trust to provide us with fact-based, relevant information. They are esteemed news sources, such as The New York Times (and its Daily Podcast), The New Yorker, or The Atlantic. They are people who ground themselves in knowledge and only speak when they know their sources are factual, people whom we can trust. Mavens are Barak Obama sharing a link to the Atlantic’s March 25th, 2020 article “How the Pandemic Will End,” or the medical professionals sharing their firsthand experience of COVID-19 and urging us not to underestimate the threat. They are people like Bill Gates, warning us of a future viral epidemic threat in his March 2015 TED Talk “The next outbreak? We’re not ready.” When these people tell you to pay attention, you know there’s something worth paying attention to.
Salesmen, on the other hand, are those who crush any doubts you may have with the information you’re provided. Salesmen are persuasive and cunning in their ability to influence decisions. They draw people in and convince them to buy whatever it is they’re selling. Salesmen have contagious personalities that most people are susceptible to catching onto. They are naturally expressive, drawing you into their idea by the sheer force of their presence, and they convince you to act according to their agenda.
With regards to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Salesmen are all the political leaders selling us an easy way out, their pathways paved with denial and ignorance. Salesmen are New York Mayer Bill De Blasio who, on March 2nd 2020, urged New Yorkers via Twitter to “go on with [their] lives + get out on the town despite Coronavirus.” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s strategy to let the virus run its course and encourage “herd immunity.” Salesmen are people like Governor Ron DeSantis refusing to shut down Florida, and well… this just wouldn’t be a comprehensive argument if I didn’t include President Trump and his overall dismissal of the very serious threat the US is facing, along with his insistence on the termination of social distancing by Easter. Oh, and the fact that in 2018 the Trump administration dismantled the team responsible for the pandemic response (and fired its leadership). Can’t forget that part (but apparently, he can).
It’s worth noting that according to CNN Politics, “amid the criticism, and the mounting death toll, de Blasio’s tone has changed” and he has embraced stricter policies to flatten the curve of this disease. Boris Johnson has since tested positive for the Coronavirus, as well as his secretary of state for health, Matt Hancock. Trump has recently extended his social distancing guidelines until April 30th, 2020. If you want more examples of people who abruptly changed their tune, people who were formerly “selling” the notion of this pandemic being overblown, or redirecting the focus from safety to politics, check out this video of Fox News Anchors.
2. The Stickiness Factor (The “What”)
For something to spread like wildfire, according to Gladwell, it has to “stick.” Yes, the amount of people your information or illness reaches is crucial in causing an epidemic, but not more important than the packaging and significance of the information itself. Not only does the idea have to reach you, but it also has to push you into action. It has to personally relevant to you in a way where you integrate its message into your reality and begin implementing behavioral changes in response to it. It has to stand out among all competing information so you don’t mentally place it on the shelf. Gladwell clarifies that stickiness is “primarily a property of the message,” and that contagiousness is “in large part a function of the messenger.”
In terms of COVID-19, there are various elements that influence the “stickiness” of the virus — or the degree to which the virus is impactful. First and foremost, the particular Coronavirus strain we’re dealing with is novel, which means it’s the first time humans are exposed to it, thereby limiting our immunity and ability to prevent it with a vaccine, or treat it with medication. An article in NPR reports that COVID-19 is twice as contagious as the seasonal flu, prone to more presymptomatic transmission (contagious before any symptoms develop), and sends roughly ten times more people to the hospital for an average stay of eleven days. Furthermore, COVID-19 is up to ten times more deadly than the seasonal flu, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease. And initial predictions on behalf of researchers at the University of Hong Kong and Harvard suggest that “at least one-quarter to one-half of the population will very likely become infected, absent drastic control measures or a vaccine.”
3. The Power of Context (The “Where”)
If the Law of the Few discusses the types of people who share specific information, and the Stickiness Factor gauges whether the shared information will stick, then the Power of Context represents a specific time and place cohesive for this information to spark an epidemic. “The Power of Context is an environmental argument,” writes Gladwell. “It says that behavior is a function of social context.” And he’s not talking about an environment in the larger landscape of life, as much as he’s referring to a situational context.
One of Gladwell’s main tenants within The Power of Context is the notion that having a group of people surrounding you — a sense of community — can deeply reinforce the value of an idea. Which also got me thinking about groupthink. Yale University social psychologist Irving Janis in his 1972 study, Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes, defined the term groupthink as “a psychological drive for consensus at any cost that suppresses dissent and appraisal of alternatives in cohesive decision-making groups.” In other words, when we’re in small intimate groups, we tend to adopt opinions that reinforce group consensus, even if we don’t personally share them. Humans are social creatures, and so we invest in others in order to feel connected and supported. Groups are powerful, and can deeply influence our behavior and decisionmaking.
The COVID-19 pandemic has many elements that support “The Power of Context” in explaining the veracity with which this virus has continued to spread globally. It also reinforces the notion that community is more important now than ever before, as we’re all (presumably, and hopefully) in a period of social isolation. To begin, I’m going to touch on the elements that have negatively impacted the context in which this virus has spread, thereby increasing the exposure to the virus or decreasing the ability for us to “flatten the curve.” (If you want to learn more approaches to this pandemic and the conflict between health and economic interests, read this article.)
First, there’s the issue with xenophobia in wake of the Coronavirus. The Atlantic reported that many East Asian communities faced racist comments and attitudes, simply because the virus itself originated in China. “Disease, after all, fosters fear, which in turn fosters discrimination,” the article read. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that a lack of trust in leadership, particularly when the US president calls it “the China virus,” certainly doesn’t help the matter, either.
Next, we have a lack of preparedness and inadequate supplies of medical equipment to accommodate the pandemic. According to The Daily Podcast episode that aired today, the United States is running out of medical supplies because of the inherent financial interests of hospitals. The making of masks was outsourced to places like China some years ago, and when the whole world is in dire need, supplies are limited. Hospitals have been limiting their bed numbers and staying near capacity for the past decade, since having empty beds is bad for business. And the issue of ventilators, which the US is woefully understocked with and yet they’re one of the most crucial components in COVID-19 treatment.
And there’s the issue of people not heeding to warnings that in order to slow down the transmission of this virus and not overwhelm healthcare facilities, we must quarantine if we’re experiencing symptoms or have recently traveled, and we must practice social isolation (i.e. staying at home whenever possible).
But it’s not all negative. There are many positive factors in “The Power of Context” that speak to how strong our sense of community can be in the midst of a global crisis, and that helps to mitigate issues like racism, lack of leadership, and scarcity of resources. For instance, we’ve witnessed an outpouring of community support for front-line healthcare workers in particular, but also for all essential services such as grocery stores and transportation of goods. Actor John Krasinski has amassed over 8 million views on a video he posted on March 29th, 2020, highlighting some of these positive acts of support. In it, he highlights events around the world where people are clapping for and celebrating their frontline healthcare workers.
We also have large corporations reaching out and lending a hand. Facebook has introduced its new Coronavirus page where people can offer or request help, and they agreed to match donations for the World Health Organization (up to $10 million dollars). We see businesses taking the initiative to help build ventilators and surgical masks. This video is a complication of Canadian celebrities urging the public to follow advice by Prime Minister Trudeau to stay home and practice social distancing. Last Sunday, iHeart Radio presented their Livingroom Concert, a benefit show to raise money for organizations such as Feeding America, the First Responders Children’s Foundation, and the Canadian Red Cross.
If epidemics, or in this case — pandemics, rely on the right people to transmit it (both the virus and the messaging associated with it), a meaningful agent or disease worth transmitting, and an environment rife with conditions that encourage transmission, then COVID-19 more than satisfies these three main tenets, which just helps to reinforce why it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
We have people who have spread this disease far and wide, few we can trust with truthful, fact-based information, and many selling us lies. We have a disease on our hands that’s twice as contagious as the seasonal flu, and up to ten times more deadly. And we’re collectively bearing witness to a pandemic housed in an environment polarized with acts of racism and xenophobia, lack of preparedness and inadequate supplies, and widespread ignorance, as well as outpourings of community support, the recognition and celebration of frontline workers, and powerful voices speaking out against remaining complacent in the face of this disease.
If the Tipping Point, according to author Malcolm Gladwell, is “the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point,” my greatest fear that we’ve not yet reached it, that the worst is yet to come. If in hindsight we discover that as a community we are overprepared and overreacting, remember — that is the best-case scenario.