Be kind to yourself and be aware of the pitfalls of pandemic ...

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Be kind to yourself and be aware of the pitfalls of pandemic panic

Behavioural scientists offer solutions to the thought traps we might fall into as a result of Covid-19

Cape Town bureau chief
Don't beat yourself up if you touch your face without thinking during the pandemic, say behavioural scientists.
PERSONAL FAILURE? Don't beat yourself up if you touch your face without thinking during the pandemic, say behavioural scientists.
Image: 123rf/ puhhha

How do we make decisions and judgement calls in a world that has been turned upside-down in the 50 days since SA detected its first Covid-19 case?

Two behavioural scientists say the same rules apply during the coronavirus emergency as at any time of crisis. And the same pitfalls await us.

Writing in The Lancet, they say awareness of unhelpful behavioural traits could help people to navigate the pandemic.

“Following the strong initial reactions to such a challenging and difficult time, awareness of judgmental pitfalls might help maintain things on the right path,” said Eldar Shafir, of Princeton University in the US, who wrote the commentary with Donald Redelmeier, of Canada’s Sunnybrook Research Institute.

They highlighted eight issues and offered solutions to help people deal with them:

1. Fear of the unknown

Threats such as Covid-19 are mysterious because they are unknown, but the initial mystery soon fades. Repeated reminders linked to the situation are important to avoid complacency.

2. Personal embarrassment

To reduce the spread of Covid-19, people have been encouraged to avoid reflexive behaviours, such as touching their faces. Some may see lapses as a personal failure. Opinion leaders can highlight one of many celebrities who have tested positive as a way of mitigating the stigma. Authorities should also counsel that momentary lapses are natural.

3. Neglect of competing risks

Many people are so consumed by Covid-19 they may neglect sleep, exercise or human companionship. Doctors should advise their patients to avoid other harms.

4. Invisible diseases

Physical distancing and isolation could worsen chronic psychiatric disorders. Increased mental health care and communication supportive of a healthy home environment are warranted.

5. No clear feedback

Time delays associated with Covid-19, including the incubation period, intervention and test results, can cause unnerving emotions and feelings. Authorities should urge caution against acting on daily epidemic reports, such as momentary declines or sudden increases, because random volatility might be mistaken for a real trend.

6. Status quo bias

People want to maintain normality during a crisis, but a temporary shaking of the status quo is an opportunity to refocus and look at things with fresh eyes. Once the initial urgency is diminished, hospitals could reconsider how clinicians adapt to new forms of telemedicine. A more radical suggestion is revisiting the broader policy debates on whether nations without universal health care might return to a new normal.

The uneven distribution of cases within and between countries will further lead to charges of inequality and injustice.

7. Ingrained societal norms

Human behaviour is shaped by norms such as shaking hands and hugging, which are hard to change. Slogans, images and other reminders could help. Doctors and nurses should model the right behaviours and spread the information, as they are role models to patients.

8. Hindsight bias

Once Covid-19 subsides, hindsight bias will lead to castigating medical authorities who might have overreacted or underreacted. The uneven distribution of cases within and between countries will further lead to charges of inequality and injustice. Some of the critiques will be correct and justified, but dynamic and contradictory data might make it difficult to establish exactly what was known at what time and how differently things could have turned out otherwise. A collective mentality that we are all in this together may prove difficult, but useful.