The Psychology of Pandemics and the need for Effective Communication
How well do you know fear? Well, let me introduce you to him. Fear is contagious, it can eat away the best part of you, it’s silent, deadly and very bold, it knows no status. We are usually afraid of the unexpected and unknown.
Fear accounts for the panic we see around the world during the chaos and difficult times, in fact, it is what is accounting for the panic we are seeing during these difficult times.
People need to have the illusion of control, the idea that they’re doing something to protect themselves and their families. This is a natural human response to fear and crisis.
For instance, If you walk into a supermarket and everyone is running around like a headless chicken grabbing all that they can, you’re going to start to wonder, “oh, man, this is really dangerous. I better start stockpiling.” Or if you see people avoiding each other for fear of contracting a disease you will also start taking measures. It’s a natural human behavior.
Infectious outbreaks have shaped the psyche of humanity for times immemorial. Epidemics and pandemics propagate fear and erratic behavior and, long after they are over, remain entrenched within the global psyche, often in the form of folk tales and literary or historical accounts. Naturally, logically, and unsurprisingly, the larger the scale of an outbreak, the larger the impact and magnitude of its sequelae. The black plague pandemic, starting in 1345, claimed up to 100 million lives and is still the topic of lively speculation and research to this day; the influenza pandemic of 1918 still receives attention.
The current pandemic is an opportunity to prepare for the next one, and the one after the next and the next and the next until there’s no more world to live but so long as there is, we always need to use today to prepare for the next. I can very well assure you, there will be another one after this is, it’s inevitable and the inevitability of life is what makes Life what it is. I can very well say, we all have been myopic, we haven’t really learned properly the lessons of past pandemics. When one pandemic passes, we turn our attention to other things, we go back to our old ways of doing things. Naturally, it’s a human behavior we are very reactive in nature than being proactive.
We need to learn the lessons from Covid-19 to better prepare ourselves to deal with things like Lockdowns, and panic buying, and other sorts of phenomena. Media attention has shaped outbreak coverage in various ways, heightening alarm while serving as a useful tool for encouraging precautions and prevention. The most important and main concern should be towards those who were isolated before and during the outbreak.
There’s is every link between Mental Health and Pandemics. This could potentially affect existing illnesses; thus precipitating new-onset mental symptoms in children or adults, possibly related to the interplay of immunity and mental illness; causing distress in the caretakers of affected individuals.
Our concern should be towards the senior people, the homeless, the aged, people over the age of 65, who are very likely to be self-isolated and may not connect with friends or family, people who might not have internet resources, those that will have lost loved ones and have been heavily affected, these are the people we need to reach out to. When SARS broke out, research available indicated that there was a spike in suicides cases with those who were heavily affected directly or indirectly. The people who will most likely to kill themselves are those who have been hit really hard by social isolation, loneliness and the thought and worry that they might be a burden on people around them.
It is not advisable to compare viruses or cases but nonetheless, we should be cautious and make sure that the most vulnerable people in our community are taken care of and provided the much-needed help and care.
Many of the most serious global threats today involve a high degree of uncertainty: will the next flu outbreak turn into a pandemic? By how many degrees will global temperatures increase this century? Limiting the damage of such threats hinges on human choices, like the decision to get vaccinated or cut back on energy use. But we humans are famously bad at making decisions in already uncertain conditions. How can unpredictable global threats be communicated to most effectively guide our decision-making?
Take the threat of a pandemic virus rapidly spreading around the globe. Pandemics have killed millions in the past and it’s likely another will eventually come – we just don’t know when. In the early stages of a pandemic, people would be asked to take action to help limit its spread, unpleasant actions like getting a vaccine or giving up travel plans. How would WHO, Health ministers and medical professionals around the world motivate people to take costly but necessary actions to help limit the spread of the disease?
People are notoriously unwilling to make sacrifices for others when the benefits are uncertain. Thus, the uncertainty inherent to infectious diseases provides the ideal conditions for their spread: risk-seeking decisions in social situations.
When protective recommendations from health professionals conflict with personal and private beliefs it is unclear how employees will react. Our communication must have the nature and beliefs of the people in mind. Each communication should be contextualized to suit the social, cultural, psychological and behavioral nature of the people. We need to have it in mind that we are culturally, socially, psychologically, economically and behaviorally programmed differently. This is where the challenge arises, how do we fashion our voices to suit different individual needs but achieve the same results?
Journalists, global leaders, and healthcare professionals can more effectively communicate the nature of this uncertainty but potentially devastating threats like such pandemics when the human costs of selfishness are made salient, people are more willing to forgo the personal and prioritize social interests, even amidst uncertainty. Communicators should instead emphasize how selfish responses to global threats risk endangering the most vulnerable among us, such as babies, pregnant women and the elderly. Focusing uncertainty on how our actions might impact others – for example, how much they might suffer – can inoculate us against selfishness.
Until we are able to understand that, Messages that are related to health-protective behaviors are likely to elicit behaviors that are overreacting and underreacting, it will be difficult to effectively create a safe and controlled atmosphere for controlling human actions during pandemics and outbreaks. This is where effective communication is key during this pandemic.
Author: Lucky Soglo (Health Advocate)