The human race has suffered – and survived – many plagues. While there have been acts of heroism in dire times, it is still common for epidemics to bring out the most unsavoury aspects of human behaviour. The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is no exception. The panic buying of hygiene products like hand sanitisers (or worse, resellers trying to hawk them online at hyper-inflated prices) is but one example. More shockingly, one country hijacked a whole consignment of surgical masks destined for another. In another vein, America, Europe and the UK initially saw incidents of xenophobic outbursts against Asians.
Singaporeans experienced similar occurrences here at home, albeit on a smaller scale. Despite COVID-19 being a physiological affliction, it also has psychosocial effects, many of them extending beyond the infected. One example is the recent scramble for supplies that saw healthy individuals and families stocking up on every thinkable item. This occurred despite there being no evidence to suggest an impending shortage.
Sociologists like the late Philip Strong describe the phenomenon as “epidemic psychology” in action. It is characterised by “plagues of fear, panic, suspicion and stigma”, along with “mass outbreaks of moral controversy, potential solutions and personal conversion to the many different causes which spring up”. Multiple factors are at work here; Strong’s model divides epidemic psychology into three categories of fear, explanation and action.
Epidemic Of Fear
The emotion of fear is innate to our psyche and is, in fact, part of our survival instinct. Fear typically accompanies entropy, the absence of familiarity. Faced with a viral outbreak, this emergence of fear is largely because it’s impossible to identify a carrier at first glance; an unidentified virus only amplifies this reaction. Perhaps it’s more fitting to call this epidemic one of suspicion. The development of stigma and urban superstition is often a natural consequence of this state of mind.
Epidemic Of Explanation
An outbreak of any kind always comes with a flurry of opinions. Be it from government agencies, the media, community leaders or even religious figureheads, any attempt to understand the scope and consequences of the outbreak is the first step towards getting the situation under control. Unless the virus in question is well-documented, a single unified directive will be rare. More often than not, a litany of voices offers differing opinions and advice in an attempt to assuage public concerns. People may find it hard to understand the facts of the outbreak at this point, which can result in collective disorientation. Such confusion often sees people swinging from one state of mind to another.
Epidemic Of Action
The epidemic of action is the most easily identifiable due to its physical manifestation. The AIDS pandemic resulted in the demonisation of homosexuality and its associated communities and subcultures. Meanwhile, the H5N1 influenza outbreak saw the mass culling of chickens in Hunan, China. This time, lock downs, mass quarantines, supermarkets packed with people preparing for doomsday scenarios and violent acts of discrimination have made headlines the world over. More consequential disruptions tend to produce more extreme reactions, and the culture of blame has certainly played a heavy hand in all these instances.
The More Things Change
Even without a scholastic eye, we are able to see differences between the reactions here and abroad. Professor Anette Lykke Hindhede, PhD, associate professor for the Department of Learning and Philosophy at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, sees a greater spread of fear in the West.
“In the European context, I can see that politicians are using fear as a strategy to modify the behaviour of the population, since downplaying the risk initially led to many people not acting according to recommendations,” she says. “You can see governments changing their communication strategies as things evolve.”
Sociologically speaking, what we’re seeing happen with COVID-19 mirrors that of past outbreaks. Prof Hindhede points to epidemics like the Western Ebola virus and the H1N1 pandemic as examples. In both cases, the psycho-social effects and the spread of fear could be attributed to concerns over the disruption of life.
“The fact that we live in a globalised world where most people easily travel from one continent to another means that norms and behaviours now spread differently compared to when Strong wrote his paper [in 1990]. Local micro-sociological interaction rituals now have less influence,” she adds.
Ideal Types In Reality
Even with the analytical utility of models like Strong’s, the question remains: are we guilty of taking things too far? Perhaps “guilty” isn’t quite the right word. We are only obeying human nature after all. Historian Howard Markel, in response to the 1918 flu pandemic, once remarked, “Incremental restrictions, enforced steadily and transparently, tend to work far better than draconian measures.”
The Chinese response leans towards the latter with the Wuhan quarantine. While the lockdown of human movement may seem like the next logical step in containment, it can cause adverse reactions. Michael T Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, has likened the Wuhan quarantine to the cordons sanitaires imposed during the West African Ebola epidemic. He argues that restricting human interaction will only do more harm. Put up a wall, and people will either want to climb them or tear them down, he posits.
The Local Landscape
If we look at things closer to home, we can see less extreme responses. At press time, Singapore has expanded its travel restrictions to include South Korea, Italy, Japan, Spain, Germany and Iran. Quarantine protocols, while strict, are in no way unreasonable. And if we apply Strong’s model to what’s currently taking place around the world, things seem to be unfolding as predicted.
But where does that leave the grassroots? David Chan, Director of the Behavioural Sciences Institute, emphasises building “psychological capital”. In a column published in The Straits Times, he mentioned how “four inter-related mindsets – self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resilience – contribute to psychological capital that helps people function in adaptive ways”. Panic is often followed by overcompensation. Societies with a larger pool of psychological capital will thus be more capable of responding in a more controlled fashion, both on an individual and administrative level.
The Circuit Breaker
Despite our early success in containing the spread, we’re not quite in the clear yet. While it’s good that the initial paranoia has notably receded, we’re still a long way from being safe. Singapore’s experience with SARS yielded many valuable lessons, which have no doubt proven beneficial in helping our management of COVID-19.
The government and its advisory organisations have been keeping a close eye on developments globally and locally, before deciding on implementing what it calls the Circuit Breaker.
As humans, it may be natural for us to display epidemic mentality. But as a collective society, we are also defined by our ability to work together. And this is what we must do now. If you think about it, the Circuit Breaker is easier to do, unlike taking up arms and going to battle. So for the love of life as we know it, we need to reign in our impulses and cooperate by staying at home.