Updated: Apr 11
What the eighties can learn us about this health scare.
It is all over the news. Everyone is talking about it: we find ourselves in the midst of a crisis. At the moment, we are living in times of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt – or as I like to call them: ‘the FUD times’. Not only because of what is currently going on, but because we are curious, perhaps even anxious, to find out what the world will look like tomorrow, when this is all behind us. What will the so-called new normal be like?
It is hard to image that, just a couple of months ago, we were going about our lives, when suddenly a crisis hit. Right now, contemporary life is mainly characterized by chaos - and this will quite possibly last for another 18 to 36 months. But what is next, you might wonder. We will gradually have to adapt to a new normal, a new environment, a new world. Obviously, people are curious, and the question arises: what will this new normal look like?
Back in time
Not only is this question about our new way of living top of mind for a lot of people, many of them are actually trying to shape what that ‘new normal’ might be. For that reason, some of them have even decided to go back in time, looking for references and situations, which might be similar to what we are faced with today and could provide us with the tools to describe - and deal with – this one . They delve into the past to look for lessons learned and find out how they can apply those today.
Can we, however, look back at any crisis in the past? Can we presume that, at their core, all crises are fundamentally the same?
Nowadays, people are, to name but one, turning to the 2008 financial crisis. During this crisis, our economy received serious blows. The thing is: that was by no means a health scare or global pandemic. They are also turning to 9-11, and, although the consequences might have also been felt on an international level, the situation was very different. These crises were not caused by a health scare or a virus that is a threat to us all. In fact, the only healthcare crisis in recent memory that we can think of, if you go by magazines, newspapers and the Internet, occurred in the 1918-1919: the Spanish flu. Yet that was so long ago, it makes it nearly impossible to actually apply lessons we learned then in today’s world, as society has changed so much in a century.
The terror of the 1980s
In my opinion, however, there is one situation, which is kind of similar to what we are going through today. Not in the way that people were also forced to stay in their houses, and that there was a global lockdown going on. Still, a similar global health scare roamed the Earth. That was in the 1980s. In the 1980s, an impressive 76% of people said that they saw this one disease as a severe threat to society. Think about it: 76%! And that disease was HIV or AIDS.
We should not forget that in the 1980s, people were already being confronted with broad and fairly in-depth media coverage about cardiovascular diseases and cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s. Although those diseases were not recent phenomena, they were becoming more widely spread and, hence, were covered more often in newspapers and other mainstream media. Suddenly, everyone had become aware of them. Incidentally, that implied an important shift in society. Now, you had all of these mediatised widespread diseases, a population that was growing older, and, at the same time, this very specific contagious disease HIV/AIDS.
As a consequence, people started to change their behaviour. It is no coincidence that the 1980s are known for the international fitness craze. Never before have people exercised as much as they did in the 1980s. Working out and exercise classes were everywhere, even in in popular culture, including music and fashion. This was also reflected in the number of smokers in society. Before the 1980s, about 40 to 45% of the population admitted to smoking. From the 1980s onwards, you can see that number drop down until about 16 to 17% today. Clearly, by becoming more aware of their health, people wanted to have an impact by, for instance, quitting the cigarette. Moreover, they also started to drink less alcohol, changed their food habits and started exercising more.
Those were all very obvious changes; anyone could see them. I am convinced that a lot of the actions that people took back then, people will be taken today as well. In fact, I believe they will occur at three distinct levels; one is safeness, the second is togetherness, and the third one is related to wellness.
Let me explain in some detail what I mean by this.
Level 1: Safeness
The first level is safeness. In the 1980s, people lacked a clear understanding of what HIV was, how it could spread, and how they could get contaminated. All of this uncertainty brought about a general need for being safe. To counter that, in the 1980s, governments started to spread a lot of information, in an attempt to explain what HIV was all about. That information also contained facts about healthy living in general, about other diseases, e.g. cancer, or what to do to, for instance, avoid cardiovascular diseases.
What is interesting here is that during this surge in available information, companies and brand started to focus on their role in society. They too wanted to play a role in this new safeness era. Corporate Social Responsibility programs were, in fact, initiated in the 1980s.
Level 2: Togetherness
The second level is togetherness. We found ourselves battling this unknown disease called HIV. Moreover, other very dangerous diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and cancer, continued to lurk on the horizon. Therefore, we decided to stick together, and help others. In the 1980s, charity events, became a big thing, and remain popular until this day.. There were walks for cancer or another disease. There were bicycle rides from one city to the next, to collect money for research. People gathered in the streets to actually put pressure on the government to fund further HIV research. Songs were released and the proceeds from the song were invested in scientific research. Benefit concerts were organized to support various charitable purposes. People wanted to experience this feeling of togetherness, and share the sense that they were actually battling this health scare together.
Level 3: Wellness
The third and final level is wellness. Obviously, people wanted to be as healthy as possible. I already touched upon the fitness craze, and people smoking and drinking less earlier. The need for wellness was very present in other areas as well. In the 1980s, corporate well-being programs were put forward for the very first time by big corporates like Johnson & Johnson. At the time, however, they still mainly focused on things like posture, being smoke free and getting a bit more exercise. During that decade, governmental preventative programs, which are also still popular today, were first launched as well.
In the 1980s, people (or patients) wanted to have more impact on their own health, we saw how they became more empowered . For the first time in history, people would actually challenge their physicians if they did not agree with the diagnosis and/or treatment proposed. They would simply ask for a second opinion. Prior to this, the physician had always been the most important man in town; he was someone whom nobody would ever doubt, let alone contradict. In the 1980s, that all changed: if people did not feel at ease with a physician, or if there was a lack of trust, they would quickly turn to someone else. .
In sum, in the 1980s, we were not only dealing with a health scare related to one particular unknown disease, but also with myriad other diseases that became more widely spread. Looking back, we can see patterns in the way people behaved. They started to crave safeness, felt a growing need for togetherness, and cultivated a longing for wellness.
Today, our healthcare is faced with a small little virus that spreads ever so easily, that locks people inside their houses, and has actually become a huge threat to society. I am convinced, however, that what is happening now will make people focus on those same three things, i.e. safeness, togetherness, and wellness.
The following questions remain: How can you, as authorities, healthcare institutions, brands or companies, or perhaps even start-ups, help your customers to be safe and create a sense of togetherness? Moreover, how can you help them in becoming as healthy and happy as possible?
We know it is unclear where we are heading. We have no idea what tomorrow’s needs will be. But we do know what people want right now. In fact, there is no doubt they will be wanting and needing it for the next 18 to 36 months to come. For that reason, let us try and make our customers, healthy and happy.