The global fear pandemic

Shoppers stock up on toilet paper and other supplies as Canadians purchase food and essential items in Markham, Ontario, Canada on 7 March 2020. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

By Sangeeta Mulchand

SINGAPORE — In scenes similar to what was seen in Singapore when the country raised its DORSCON level to Orange, supermarket shelves in European, US, and even Australian cities are being stripped bare of staples, with shoppers, in some cases, coming to blows over packs of toilet paper

Worse have been the incidents of discrimination against the Chinese community, healthcare workers, and their families, as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues its global spread.

Psychologists say it is the “emotional” part of the human brain at work.

“As human beings, we have a very strong bias towards the detection of potential threats – even if these may not be rational or logical,” said Sharon Sung, Assistant Professor, Health Services and Systems Research at Duke-NUS Medical School.

 “In evolutionary terms, it has been better for us to be safe than sorry when facing an unknown situation that could threaten our survival and that of our loved ones. The emotional parts of our brain that detect threat work more quickly than those that process information in a more rational or logical manner.”

In this, the sheer volume of freely accessible media coverage has proven a double-edged sword. Even when reliable and from reputable sources, constant exposure “can prove overwhelming for people and contribute to an exaggerated perception of danger, particularly if one tries to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle,” said Sara-Ann Lee, Clinical Psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health.

Being faced with the prospect of serious illness, and possibly death, triggers instincts to prioritise health and safety, and actions that will ensure this – in this case, securing food, masks and hand sanitisers, or wearing goggles and other protective gear. 

These are tangible evidence of preparedness, and a means to “assert control” over the situation, said Ms Lee.

Only once this has been secured does the thinking, reasoning part of the brain kick in. In Singapore, the transition has been helped by government efforts to provide clear, detailed and timely information; dispel misinformation; and take definitive actions to contain the virus - from contact tracing and quarantine, to legal action for false information. 

“They have made their message very consistent and very timely – as in when they know and have verified the information, they have released it,” said Dr Calvin Fones, Consultant Psychiatrist and Adjunct Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore. “It’s also quite balanced, in that they consider and give the logic for the information, for example in the debate about wearing masks versus not wearing masks.” 

In Singapore, only those who are actually ill are advised to wear masks to avoid infecting others. 

The regular briefings have allowed people to update their initial threat assessment based on new information, and provided reassurance that while serious, the virus is not as deadly as our emotional brain would have us believe, noted Asst Prof Sung. 

There has been very clear messaging that Singapore is prepared for various scenarios and has the resources to see its citizens through, she said. Information on the number of cases discharged from the hospital also serves “to balance out the initial focus on the number of deaths being reported elsewhere.”

Despite the praise being heaped on the city-state for its handling of the virus, Dr Fones cautions against complacency, pointing to the recent emergence of a new cluster at the Singapore Science Park after several days of relative quiet. 

“It’s like putting out bush fires in Australia – you think you’ve gotten it all, and then a spark will start another nidus somewhere,” he said. “So, whether from within or from overseas, that’s something that we’re going to have to guard against.” 

With COVID-19 now spreading to more countries and people, Dr Fones admits that “it’s going to get trickier” to contain. And with heightened danger, heightened panic is a possibility.

“Something may trigger the fear, and we’ll be out buying noodles and rice again. There’s that possibility,” he said. On a more positive note, with basic physiological and safety needs met, Singaporean are reaching out to support others, including overtaxed healthcare workers and foreign tenants that have been thrown out by fearful landlords, hence “balancing self-preservation and societal and community-type factors”. 

Ms Lee agrees: “It has become clearer that the threat of COVID-19 is likely to persist for the immediate future. As people adapt to this and normalise their lives around it, they become less reactive and are able to instead respond in a more intentional manner.”

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