Opinion: Complacency or panic won't protect you, but taking action could
4 March 2020
As widespread media coverage of the coronavirus outbreak continues, Professor Helene Joffe (UCL Psychology & Language Sciences) writes for i News about how people react in times of uncertainty.
As humans, we find it hard to live with uncertainty. We simply do not know if Covid-19, a coronavirus, is going to spread rapidly beyond the 89,000+ cases to date, or whether it will die out gradually. We don’t know how long an infected person is contagious for, and we are not sure of the myriad ways it might spread.
Set against this backdrop of uncertainty, each of us attempts to make sense of this new risk. This is shaped by the reams of words and images about the virus served to us by the media, as well as conversations about it in the pub, supermarket and on the school run.
The evidence shows us that a high volume of media coverage of a particular risk correlates with high levels of fear, and that presenting people with potential scenarios in which millions are infected, as prominent epidemiologists have done, plays a similar role.
A further amplifier of risk perception lies in the symbols surrounding this virus. Much airtime, particularly in the initial reporting of the virus, was devoted to a pivotal symbol of danger: the “wet” markets in China. The disease was depicted as radiating from them - wild animals were being ingested by humans and the ensuing animal-to-human transfer of disease would, it was suggested, turn out to be apocalyptic, in the vein of science fiction tropes.
Historically the “perverse” (i.e. different from our own norms) practices of others have often been associated with, and blamed for, a host of emerging infectious diseases. Like the bat-to-pangolin-to-human theory of Covid-19’s origin, so the dangerous practices of others have been associated with AIDS, where bestiality was a widely circulating theory of origin. We associate the danger with other people’s practices and identities, in order to distance us from the risk. Yet the rapid movement of news and of people in the modern world puts the “other” among us and with it the fear of spread.
There are, of course, individual differences in anxiety levels. Strong evidence shows that those who are more powerful in a given society have lower levels of risk perception. So some are putting the hand gel on at every turn, while others are complacent.
When it comes to a threat like Covid-19, both complacency and panic are problematic. Complacency is unhelpful because whatever the course of this disease, the public needs to act to contain it. Without acts like self-isolation and preventing our coughs from infecting others, the pandemic would be far worse. Meanwhile, panic should be avoided because a state of strong emotional arousal is not necessarily associated with taking useful action to mitigate the spread. It also leads to stigmatisation of those associated with the origin of the disease.
We don’t know if predictions that the 3,000+ who have died are “only the tip of the iceberg” will be borne out. What we do know is that each of us can personally act to mitigate the spread. The World Health Organisation recommends that we wash or sanitise our hands frequently, and cough and sneeze into our elbows or a paper tissue that is then disposed of and avoid touching our mouths and noses.
Once such emerging infectious diseases abate, we often wonder what all the panic was about because hindsight is 20/20. However, the extreme reaction that we have seen is highly functional in motiving disease prevention – from the behaviour changes suggested above to quarantine and development of vaccinations and drugs. Being consumed by the potential danger we face is not helpful, but taking action is.
This article was originally published in i News on 2 March 2020.
- Original article in i News
- Professor Helene Joffe’s academic profile
- UCL Psychology & Language Sciences