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OK, Not-OK in times of pandemic

Giovanni Felice Pace takes an existential perspective on coronavirus.

16 March 2020

In these difficult times where an ugly mix of clarity and confusion is making everyone to obsessively Google 'COVID-2019', 'pandemic', 'washing hands', 'coronavirus' and so on, something triggered my mind.

At the beginning of my training in Transactional Analysis, the whole idea of OK-ness shocked me. This term defines the inherent sense of being enough, the corral “I’m OK, You’re OK” and its variations. People acquire a Life Position (Ernst, 1971) and usually codify and interpret the world from this existential lens.

My understanding of it is more existential than practical. In these difficult times, where a cough triggers high alert, I think that the worldwide societies are facing their existential position, and this is evident by the variety of responses that we all can see happening in the world.

Epidemic and pandemic as losses
Losses happen whenever something or someone disappears, ceases to exist, or becomes infinitely distant from us. It is all about reshaping our life after the loss, and the only way to do it is to feel it in small bites.

Traumatic Losses do this even more effectively, potentially shattering our hard-earned safety into disintegration, pushing towards confusion and reaction, rather than a calm (Adult) analysis of our surroundings.

The safety-seeking response
When under pressure, people use their own shortcut to safety. It is unsurprising then, that the average reaction we are seeing is along the lines of “every man for himself!”. A normal reaction to have when faced with an invisible, threat like COVID-19: a flu different enough from others to spread quickly. We are now faced with an existential anguish and threat: an invisible attacker that can become anyone, especially who we don’t know.


All of us living in the UK have done some thinking about this virus. We are forced to by what is happening in Italy right now, and its drastic measures.

It’s disturbing to see the fear spreading as fast as the virus. The “You’re not OK” shift is evident in the passenger with darting eyes who changes seat as soon as you cough, the tube passenger who gets out of the train before their destination after hearing a sneeze.

Group pressure on the individual
We are born in group, and it’s to our group that we go to find protection. From the group we receive the promise of protection, the “We’re OK”.

Unfortunately, this becomes a problem whenever the group leaders show denial or minimisation of problems, perpetrating narratives that are not in line with the here-and-now events. As in a dream-like status where things have little-to-nil consequence in the real world, some leaders respond to loss of safety with disorganised attitude of freezing, discounting that results in neglect, creating a false sense of safety that does not match the experience of the individual.

Confusion is the outcome. A pandemic is an invitation to collaborate. Despite the WHO shift from epidemic to pandemic, a loud silence has been heard. The group leaders have offered conflicting responses to the problem, which suggests a free-for-all attitude.

Confusion at the top triggers stress-responses at the bottom, the selfishness emptying shelves in supermarkets. This can make the individual to shift towards either the “I’m OK, You’re Not OK” or the “I’m not OK, You’re Not OK” positions. The second part is common between these positions: the others become enemies, dehumanised, unworthy of care.

Logical and empathic thinking is shut down, resulting in further spreading of the pandemic.

Responsibilities: shared and individual
Once “safety” is perceived, relaxation is the next phase. Here is where the problem lays: the fake “We’re OK” narrative that neglectful, unthought responses create.

Passivity from the top pushes people on the bottom into action, yet this is not an affordable gamble right now. The burden of choice falls onto the individual, whilst some guidance is needed.

My invitation is to all the other humans to consider people who are endangered by this once-epidemic-now-pandemic: the immunosuppressed, the older, the frail, the health anxiety sufferer, the germophobe, the irresponsible, the “don’t care” type.

“I’m OK, You’re OK” is an ethical stance.

As an Italian I feel under the “You’re Not OK” part of the corral. From “pasta-eater” to “plague-bringer” is a huge leap.

As a professional, I am asking all my peers to take this seriously, and to inspire some reflection. This is a duty we all share towards others, the known the ones we know and the ones we don’t. There is nothing worse than being silent or passive right now.

I invite organisational bodies, employers, regulators, statespersons etc. to provide some directions to all of us and take this issue seriously, as what is at stake is much more than money.

Reality is, we are all in the same boat together.

Giovanni Felice Pace, Chartered Psychologist and Psychotherapist

Ernst, F. H. (1971). The OK-Corral: The Grid for Get-On-With. Transactional Analalysis Journal, 1(4), 231-240.