Covid-19 has found an ally in its pursuit of infecting as many people as possible in the shortest space of time — the older white man.
Boris Johnson and his dad, Mike ‘Sports Direct’ Ashley, Matt Hancock, Neil and Stephen Kinnock, Tim ‘Wetherspoons’ Martin, Donald Trump, Michael ‘Ryanair’ O’Leary and Robert ‘I drove to visit my parents’ Jenrick. High-profile individuals that at first glance have very little in common. Yet they have all shown public disregard for either the virility of the virus or the advice to stay at home, self-isolate and socially distance.
They are not alone. A recent UK wide poll by JL Partners found that around 3.6 million people are still ignoring social distancing advice, 2.6 million aren’t washing their hands and 3.1 million people are still content to hug or shake hands.
Politicians, like Michael Gove have lazily pointed to millennials being the culprits. They cite the photos of groups of young people shopping in markets or lounging in parks as evidence that, true to form with rebellious youth, it is they that are breaking the rules and putting lives at risk.
This is simply wrong. The group that will disobey warnings in a crisis far more than any other is older white men. It is known as the ’White Male Effect’.
Not all older white men expose themselves to greater unnecessary risk by failing to trust or act on warnings, and not all women or young people will play ball either. We all remember ‘Chris’, the infamous BBC Radio Solent caller who proclaimed she was happy to risk walking on the beach in return for her life. But a far higher proportion of older white men will expose themselves to risk than any other group, including millennials.
Research repeatedly demonstrates that white men, especially older ones, consistently ignore warnings. They have a greater distrust of officialdom and experts, believe more in their own instincts to be right over anyone else’s and, have a higher tendency to not do what they are told even if it is for their own good or the good of others. They believe in their own invincibility and immortality.
In tornadoes, older white men, compared to anyone else, are less likely to take shelter. In floods they are far more likely to refuse to leave the area. During Covid-19, it means many won’t stay home to save lives.
This White Male Effect will also almost certainly have played a part in how slowly the UK and the US responded to the emerging pandemic. Both the Johnson and Trump administrations have also turned to older white male experts for how to manage this crisis — the notable exceptions being Jenny Harries and Yvonne Doyle.
This White Male Effect is caused primarily by the education system and society as a whole, which encourages white men to believe in their own superiority.
The longer a white man lives in Western society, the longer he is exposed to subtle influences that tell him he knows best. He has a higher opinion of himself, a determination to assert dominance over others and a fear of other groups, such as younger people or women, undermining his authority.
“In tornadoes, older white men, compared to anyone else, are less likely to take shelter. In floods they are far more likely to refuse to leave the area. During Covid-19, it means many won’t stay home to save lives.”
The ongoing challenge for government is to keep older white men on their side as social distancing measures drag on.
The lockdown appears to be working in terms of ‘flattening the curve’. For the current measures to continue to be successful it takes the vast majority to obey. This need to continue to alter our behaviour will wear thin on many of those older white men who originally conformed.
Once the initial news blitz declines, and he hasn’t experienced Covid-19 for himself, older white man will think the government has cried wolf. He will believe it is overhyped and will become desensitised to the crisis far quicker than anyone else. The latest uptick in traffic on the roads shows that he probably already is.
It won’t be easy to rein in the older white man without some form of martial law. The government has deployed every public relations trick in the book. There has been a carpet bombing of emails, letters, press briefings, adverts and headlines all delivering ever more apocalyptic warnings to the public. The doom cupboard is almost bare.
The government has commandeered some of the best and most astute older white male minds to tackle the impact of coronavirus. Now they must reach out to the brightest in disaster management, behavioural economics, nudge theory, marketing and public relations, and ask them to solve the White Male Effect conundrum before it is too late.
This effort must include women, ethnic minorities and younger people rather than another pale male cohort — otherwise the same mistakes will be repeated and more lives will be lost.
Richard Stokoe lectures at the University of South Wales on planning for disasters and civil contingencies and on strategic leadership