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  • Writer's pictureGoran Yerkovich

Pandemic Paradox: Saving Yourself First No Longer Applies - Rewriting Collective Truths

Updated: Oct 10, 2020

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The pandemic has turned the world upside down and there's a paradox in this.

Borders are closed, airplanes are grounded, shops are empty and locked. There are lines at grocery stores just to enter. Oil futures dropped 321% to -40 a barrel.

These are strange times. But an interesting paradox has arrived.

For the first time, it's truly understood (by most of us) that our collective wellbeing is more important than our individual selves.

Perhaps for the first time in history, we see a new paradox at a global level.

So here's the paradox as explained by my good friend Scott Janzen.

by Scott Janzen

Paradox #1: "Save yourself first before you can save others" transforms to "You cannot save yourself, you can only save others. You can only be saved by the actions of others."

The original maxim is used in many modern day examples, like ambulance first responders or scuba enthusiasts, or in times of emergency in general - the idea of saving yourself first has been a very useful and practical collective 'truth' for ages. 

But in the case of wearing masks during the current pandemic, this maxim no longer holds:

Now, when you wear a mask, assuming it is not an N95 mask, which we are all saving for frontline workers, you are helping others by reducing the possible transmission of the virus from yourself to them, but you are not reducing the probability of you contracting the virus yourself.

In this case, personal action can only help others, and frontline workers who need the N95 masks the most.

Only collective action can provide a personal benefit for yourself, for instance you would still obtain the benefit if everyone wore a mask except for you.

Has this philosophical construct been contemplated before?

Paradox #2: Collective Belief Creates a Reality that Directly Contradicts the Belief

Similar to the situation above, we now have a pandemic that creates an inverse of "The Tragedy of The Commons." In this theory, if everyone assumes that another person will try to gain the most value from the commons, each person will rush to obtain as much value as possible while there is still value left, and this collective belief creates a reality that supports this belief and the commons are decimated.

Conversely, if everyone assumes that other people will take very little from the commons and leave the commons in a better condition than they found it, this collective belief creates a reality that supports the original belief.

During this Covid-19 pandemic, we have a situation that ensures the collective belief will create a reality that contradicts the original belief:

Belief A: If we assume that everyone has Covid-19 (including ourselves), then we will all isolate and distance ourselves (and wear masks) and less people will end up contracting the virus

Belief B: If we assume that only some people (others) have Covid-19 we are less likely to isolate and wear a mask, and this increases the probability that we will contract the virus. 

In both of these examples, our belief in the state of the world directly contradicts the reality that emerges as a result of our belief. We are guaranteed to be wrong in our belief, we can only choose how we want to be wrong.

This all has interesting implications for policy makers and communications to the public. I feel that the WHO has used some of this reasoning in their dissemination of information on whether to wear masks or not, but I don't know if this has been extensively discussed by philosophers up to now. I'm wondering if anyone reading this might know?


Great Article Scott! Thanks for sharing. If anyone has thoughts on this feel free to add a comment.

Until next time, stay strong, stay healthy, and thrive.

- Goran Yerkovich

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About the author - Goran Yerkovich is the founder of, designed to help readers master their personal growth and live a more inspired life. He lives in the greater Vancouver area with his wife and two cats Kimchi and Kauai.