Be nice. And other lessons in how to handle panic

Nobody – not even someone who’s covered wars and conflict for 18 years like CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh – is immune to panic. He shares some of his coping tips from the field.

If, like me, you woke from a dream on a lazy beach this morning and took 30 seconds to realize you were instead in a time of Covid-19, it was a dark lurch into our new unsettling reality. Keep calm and wash your hands only goes so far.

Nobody — not even someone who’s covered about a dozen conflicts over 18 years — is immune to panic. I’m still a beginner in handling it, as I briefly found out this morning.

But I have learned a few things along the way that I hope are helpful and not patronizing to share.

1. There will always be food. Everywhere, no matter the frontline or climate, there is something to eat. It may be cold, greasy chicken on squashed fries, or Afghan army rice with a necessary side of antibiotics, or stale, soggy bread at the bottom of a plastic bag. But come a super typhoon, ISIS, or the Russian army, there’s always been food. Yes, there are exceptions like famines and we media get amazing hospitality sometimes.

But really, there’s no need to buy so much to eat in the future that we have to worry about having enough to give people to eat now.

There’s no need to deprive stores, and the elderly and vulnerable, with supplies that could easily be there if you just bought a bit less. People have a remarkable capacity to feed themselves, often in more hazardous situations than a pandemic.

2. You don’t need toilet roll. Unless, of course, you do. You do if you need to urgently do your business down a perpendicular rock outside Mosul in Iraq or in a Donbass roadside ditch in eastern Ukraine. But you don’t if you have a shower nearby, or any running water. You will live without wiping your posterior. It may even do you good to learn how clean you can get yourself with just soap.

3. Don’t worry about things you can’t change. There are things you can change: like where you go today, who you see and who you help. There are a lot of things you can’t change in the short-term, such as: government policy, the preparations in your local health service, or what’s going to happen in May.

One of the things I’ve had to learn is that you can’t control everything, everywhere in complicated places. Sometimes it’s actually dangerous to second-guess the random future events and try to mitigate risks you aren’t actually able to see yet. Use your energy to change what you actually can, now.

4. Be nice. It may save your life. Being decent to others is not an act of altruism. It is deeply self-serving. Other people are the best source of information out there about what’s going on.

The things you really want to know are sometimes the things they will be reluctant to tell you, especially if you are unpleasant (like is your neighbor sick, for example. Or they are about to shell the other side of that hill, so don’t go there).

Other people are more likely to help you if they like you, or remember the last joke you told them. Being nice is good for them, for you, and your safety and health.

5. Things get better and rebuild, often much faster than you think they will. This is one of the best bits about my job. It’s seeing Kobani in Syria rebuilding and thriving a year after it was slammed by ISIS’s makeshift mortars and coalition airstrikes. And that was after airstrikes.

It’s having the best lamb I’ve eaten in a freshly-reconstructed Grozny. And it’s children going to class again in the southern Russian town of Beslan, even if the school where terrorists killed hundreds in 2004 remains a sombre memorial.

Covid-19 will eventually become something we can handle, even if it leaves behind families grieving for their loved ones and a badly damaged global economy.

There’s one final, big takeaway — the bit you don’t often see in news reports that often necessarily home in on bad events, one statistic that might brighten your day, and your worries about your loved ones. Even in wars, nearly everyone gets out OK.

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