COVID-19, Masking, Thomas Jefferson and the St. Lucian Parrot: A Common Thread

As we all adjust to the new reality of the global COVID pandemic, the United States, in contrast to many other nations, is facing a resurging second wave of pandemic as public health measures such as wearing a mask to protect themselves and those around them are being disregarded.

Is there a common thread between COVID-19, the disregard for masking, the founding fathers and looking for solutions to the issue of masking and following public health guidelines in how the St. Lucian parrot was saved from extinction!

The public health guidelines to prevent COVID-19 spread by wearing mask, and social distancing is falling on deaf ears for many Americans. Some say that this message deafness can be traced to the very idea of individualism– a bedrock principle on which America was founded.  Thomas Jefferson, while penning the American Declaration of Independence, found inspiration in the writings of John Locke- one of the most influential Enlightment thinkers of his times. The idea of “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence was first considered by Locke as natural laws to follow in his writing “Two Treatises on Government”.

It may seem ironic that Locke, a physician himself and the ideas of individual personal freedom he expounded is conflicting people today? Is it that for many, these rules from public health officials, feels like a forfeiture of their individual freedoms thus creating internal conflict and immense moral distress? Has not wearing a mask thus becomes a symbol of individualism as it gets politicized across the nation? If so, how can we get find a solution?

As we search for answers, a real occurrence as narrated by Dan and Chip Heath in their book “Switch”, may provide some clues-  

The St. Lucian Parrot

“The St. Lucia Parrot exists only on the Caribbean island o f St. Lucia. It’s gorgeous, with a vivid turquoise blue face, lime green wings, and a striking red shield on its chest. In 1977, only one hundred St. Lucia Parrots were left on the island. The population had been decimated by habitat destruction, hunters, and people who trapped them to use as pets. The St. Lucia Parrot seemed doomed; in the words of one biologist, the species “could not escape oblivion by the year 2000.”

This dire situation finds the most unlikely hero is a college student Paul Butler.

“Butler, in 1977, was finishing his last year of studies at North-East London Polytechnic. Butler’s passion was conservation, and he’d previously spent five weeks completing a field research expedition in St. Lucia, where he’d studied the parrot and submitted recommendations for preserving the species.”

“Just before graduation-“with unemployment staring me in the face,” said Butler-he received a letter from the head of St. Lucia’s forestry department. To Butler’s astonishment, he was offered a job. Impressed with Butler’s recommendations, the head of forestry asked if Butler was interested in returning for six months as the department’s conservation adviser. The job paid $200 a month, and Butler could stay in a government “rest hut. Butler could barely believe his luck. He was 21-years old, and the government of a beautiful Caribbean island was asking for his help in saving an endangered species.”

“Butler’s recommendations to the government had been straightforward: ( 1 ) Beef up the punishment for capturing or killing the parrot, from a trivial fine to an enormous fine plus a jail term. (2) Establish within an existing forestry reserve a “parrot sanctuary” that would protect the parrot’s habitat. (3) Raise money for the operation of the reserve by licensing “rain-forest tours,” which would offer tourists the chance to see the reserve and its star attraction.” However, “for Butler’s recommendations to be put into practice, the island’s laws would need to change, which meant, in turn, that the public would have to get behind the initiative. So Butler, fresh out of college, working with the forestry department, and armed with a budget in the hundreds of dollars, had to figure out a way to rally the people of St. Lucia behind a parrot that most of them took for granted (and some of them ate).”

There was no clear economic case for saving the parrot. It wasn’t the linchpin of an ecosystem, and the sad truth was that most St. Lucians probably wouldn’t notice if it disappeared completely. Butler knew he couldn’t make an analytical case for protecting the bird.

He’d have to make an emotional case.

In essence, Butler’s goal was to convince St. Lucians that they were the kind of people who protected their own. In public events, Butler stressed, “This parrot is ours. Nobody has this but us. We need to cherish it and look after it.” He did everything in his power to make the public more familiar with the bird. He hosted St. Lucia Parrot puppet shows, distributed T-shirts, cajoled a local band to record songs about the bird, convinced local hotels to print up bumper stickers, recruited volunteers to dress up in parrot costumes and visit local schools, and asked local ministers to cite relevant Bible verses (for instance, verses that instructed believers to be good stewards of the things that were in their trust).

He even talked a telecom company into printing up St. Lucia Parrot calling cards. On one card, the parrot was displayed next to the bald eagle, which was like putting Selma Hayek next to Dick Cheney. It was clear who had the better-looking national bird.

The St. Lucians began to embrace their parrot, as though it had always been a part of their national identity. Polls commissioned by Butler showed a dramatic rise in public support for the bird. The wave of public support made it possible to pass into law the recommendations that Butler and the forestry department, headed up by Gabriel Charles, had proposed.

As the years passed, the species came back from the brink. Poaching stopped completely. “No St. Lucian has been caught shooting a parrot for fifteen years,” said Butler in 2008.

In 1988, the government gave Butler full citizenship and later awarded him the St. Lucia Medal of Merit, one of the country’s highest honors. He had shown St. Lucians what it meant to take pride in their identity, and in the process, he’d become a St. Lucian himself.

His model so successful in St. Lucia has met success in other areas of conservation across the globe over the last 40 years from saving the loggerhead turtle to the Napoleon wrasse (a brilliant blue fish whose habitat is coral reefs).

The groups success in motivating people in over fifty countries suggests that something universal is at work here.

When people make choices, they tend to rely on one of two basic models of decision-making: the consequences model or the identity model.

The consequences model assumes that when we have a decision to make, we weigh the costs and benefits of our options and make the choice that maximizes our satisfaction. It’s a rational, analytical approach. This is the approach that Paul Butler knew would fail with St. Lucians, because there simply wasn’t a strong cost/benefit case for the parrot.

In the identity model of decision-making, we essentially ask ourselves three questions when we have a decision to make: Who am l? What kind of situation is this? What would someone like me do in this situation? Notice what’s missing: any calculation of costs and benefits. The identity model explains the way most people vote, which contradicts our notion of the “self-interested voter.” It helps to shed light on why an auto mechanic in Oklahoma would vote against a Democrat who’d give him health insurance, and why a Silicon Valley millionaire would vote against a Republican who’d cut her taxes.

Heath mention “Generally, when we use the word identity, we’re talking about an immutable trait of some kind-such as a racial, ethic, or regional identity. But that’s a relatively narrow use of the term. We’re not just born with an identity; we adopt identities throughout our lives. We aspire to be good mothers or fathers, devout Catholics or Muslims, patriotic citizens, and so on.

Because identities are central to the way people make decisions, any change effort that violates someone’s identity is likely doomed to failure. So the question is this: How can you make your change a matter of identity rather than a matter of consequences?

As the United States celebrates its 244th Independence Day the looming question of our times is how do we overcome the most pressing challenge during the pandemic? How do we prevent spread till a successful vaccine is made.

Maybe we need to flip the discussion around the wearing of masks and following social distancing norms in this fight against a virus not by following a consequence model of thinking (i.e. if I do not wear a mask I will get sick or those around will get sick) but by following an identity model of heuristic decision-making and thinking (I am doing this as a sacrifice for my country)?

Maybe appealing to a national identity and pride may be the solution. A generation earlier, the American people heed to John F Kennedy’s call of “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country?”

It is time to heed to a new call in this pandemic battle! Can we do it for our country.

Switch is a book about managing change by the Heath brothers (Chip and Dan)

3 thoughts on “COVID-19, Masking, Thomas Jefferson and the St. Lucian Parrot: A Common Thread

  1. This is very well done, cogently argued, and presented in a compelling fashion. The conclusion makes sense. I enjoyed reading it.


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