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Coronavirus: worldwide panic and uncertainty. Your survival guide to quarantine

The coronavirus outbreak has left people around the globe perplexed, confused, and scared. RT Documentary talks to psychologists Adriana Lito and Sergey Enikopolov about reasons for panic and aggression, tips to organise the forced "vacation" at home and ways to stay sane inside four walls under constant risk of contagion. 

Adriana Lito, psychologist, head of Adriatika, an international social project for psychological assistance

Sergey Enikopolov, head of the Medical Psychology Department at the Scientific Centre for Mental Health

Because of the pandemic, our stress levels are through the roof. Why is that?

empty shelves coronavirus supermarket
No one can say what to do. Even the government doesn't know what will become of it. Under these circumstances, the emotional toll of any decision becomes heavier/ Mick Haupt via Unsplash

Adriana LitoBecause it's scary. This is a situation with a high level of uncertainty. It's very confusing and unclear how much longer it'll stay like this. People have a very narrow planning horizon at the moment; usually, it is much wider. The situation keeps changing every few days. The government introduces quarantine; then they cancel it. One company is working; another one is not. What will happen to the currency is unclear: where to keep it? In banks? The list goes on and on. With all that going on, everyone is looking for the right thing to do, even more so now. It triggers all our childhood fears of making the wrong decision. In addition to that, no one can say what to do; even the government doesn't know what will become of it. Under these circumstances, the emotional toll of any decision becomes heavier. 

In addition to that, only a few people understand how to verify the information – it overloads our systems, decreasing our ability to think critically – which results in panic. For instance, usually, when we hear that there's a new virus in China, most people would be unfazed. Now, when we're told this, a publication causes the explosion of interest and gets passed on. Along the way, the information gets twisted and becomes ever more 'fearful.'

Have you encountered mass panic like the one we are witnessing now, in the past? When? 

Sergey Enikolopov: I can't say it was precisely the same, but there were two cases I worked with – the earthquake in Spitak, Armenia, in 1988, and the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. The Chernobyl case is closest to what's happening now because we have to deal with an invisible adversary. It wasn't about the accident itself. People developed the fear of radioactive contamination (radiophobia), and it persisted for quite a while. In the case of the earthquake, the fear was more subjectified. Everyone could feel the tremors and see the ruins. The panic-driven fear that I'm talking about is what can be described as mass panic. The problem is that you can't see the danger – no one has seen either radiation or the virus. We can only hear about it, learn about it, watch how people get sick and die. This is the main, perhaps, the biggest problem of such panic states. When a person doesn't know where to go and what to fight.

The historical experience is the outbreaks of the 2000s and further back to the plague, cholera, etc. The Italian word quarantena was used to mark the 40 day-period for ships to stay anchored after arriving in Venice and Genoa.

So, as a response to outbreaks, isolation tactics were developed. Later virologists emerged and started to use scientific advances to figure out the proper set of actions, but they could only do it in the height of the disease. In some cases, it worked out great. Look at what happened in the 1920s, when the world lost 50 million lives in four years to the Spanish flu. Later, there was an enormous number of epidemics in the Soviet Union – of cholera, of plague, which resulted in the opening of an infectious diseases service. The ability to respond quickly, to teach doctors the basics of virology and infectious diseases – that's the legacy of the previous generations.

Coronavirus news coverage. In reality, anyone could infect anyone. But in the media, someone is always the guilty party, while another is portrayed as a victim. Why are the roles distributed this way?

A.L.: First of all, it helps to deal with the uncertainty – something we talked about when I answered the first question. I mean, what one can do? One can take a certain stance. I guess you noticed how polarised the opinions have got. The first opinion, 'It's so scary, we are all going to die! The economy won't recover.' The second opinion, 'That's all nonsense, you're blowing it out of proportion, this virus is no more dangerous than the flu!' But actually, these are the manifestations of the same thing, the anxiety. It leads to a high degree of polarisation. When such polarisation occurs, one party dislikes the other; it ratchets up aggression. Depending on what side you are on, you will have a different attitude towards someone walking around without a mask. Some would call such a person a hero while others would see him or her as a killer spreading the infection. That's how the anxiety manifests itself. I live in Israel, and recently, one Asian student was beaten on the street. He wasn't even Chinese; he was a returnee from South America – teenagers did it because they were scared.  

S. E.:This is exactly what I have talked about before. It's unaccountable fear versus 'I finally know who is to blame!' This is why the WHO – and they know what they are doing – are against the term 'Chinese flu.' That's what is a little scandalous about Trump's and the elites' attitude – they stigmatise the Chinese. Then this subjectified fear is pointed at the Europeans, as the virus spreads across the continent. Finally, it's transferred onto our fellow countrymen who have returned from somewhere. And there is something not everybody has noticed – journalists don't want to put too much emphasis on this – there's certain antagonism towards the wealthy. 'I can't afford travelling around to all these Courchevels, alpine ski resorts, and stuff, and they do! And then they come back and infect us, simple provincial folks!' It's a search for someone to hate because aggression is the best way to protect your identity, internal representation of yourself. Everything that is perceived as a threat does not necessarily provoke physical aggression but causes irritation, hatred, etc. In this sense, the Asians, the Europeans, they serve as a source of fear that is tangible. Fear manifests itself through aggression. In general, aggression is a sign of distress.  

People stock up on grains, pasta, toilet paper – even though there is no critical shortage of anything. What does such behaviour show? Is that fear too?

panic shopping amid coronavirus
Many people have memories of deficit and hunger. So, in a panic, they would buy more to get through trying times/ Men standing in line in Kuwait/ REUTERS by Stephanie McGehee

A. L.: First of all, practically all the people who grew up in the 1990s in Russia or lived in the 1980s, the older generation, experienced deficit and hunger. If you take a look at what exactly they buy, that's what helped them to get through trying times. For example, in a panic, I found myself buying a can of instant coffee even though I don't drink it. But I associate this smell with my childhood, with something that was in short supply. To someone else, it's buckwheat. Of course, we're not talking about the siege of Leningrad during WWII; there are almost no survivors left today. But still, this is the memory of our grandmas, grandpas or parents, our own memory, too. One of the girls I know experienced an intense flashback when she came and saw empty shelves in a supermarket. She was brought back to her childhood when you come to a store and only saw three cans of pickled laminaria there. That's something they lived through, and it's a terrifying experience that they had. When the trigger is released, it drives people to behave the way they did to survive. I had a poll on Facebook, 'What was the most impulsive purchase you made?' Some bought condensed milk, though they don't eat sugar; some bought perfume, already having an entire perfumery at home; some stocked up on flour intending to bake after a decade of no baking. These are ways to cope with stress. You'd laugh at yourself a little, and say, 'What am I going to do with all this flour?', and a little voice inside of you will say, 'You'll bake bread when stores run out of it!' There was a time when people who stocked up, in the Soviet Union or during the siege of Leningrad, survived just because of their thriftiness. So, this strategy is not that bad.

What can you say about aggression towards the authorities and law enforcement who ensure security? Why is there such behaviour?

S. E.: There are at least two reasons. One of them is the so-called 'freedom reflex' described by psychologist Ivan Pavlov back in the day. As soon as we see a fence in front of us, we try to find an opening. Even if we don't need to go behind the fence, we still have to find a passage. It is true for any kind of prohibition. We test the boundaries. This reflex is manifested differently in each individual. 

The second reason is the attitude towards law enforcement. The hostility against the agency that worries about your well-being might look like some kind of jackassery. But internally, the reason is an attempt to find an enemy. I'm unhappy, I'm irritated, and I have a chance to take it out on someone. That's where all these escapes from quarantine come from – I guess there were several cases already. Sensible people will say that these people are crazy, or it's a provocation of some kind. But any person has this 'you can't stop me' design. You used to do anything you want, and now it's all taken away from you. So, it's almost a childish reaction, 'How dare you forbid me anything?'  

With all this panic and self-isolation protocol, should we expect looting?

S. E.: As the western experience has shown, in England, in France, they loot not only the abandoned property but also stores, etc. There are always such people. But I'm more worried about swindlers rather than looters. There are always swindlers that try to line their pockets in times like these. There is no talk about some stupid western values at the individual level. I was in New York when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012. We arrived at the airport, and the real cab fare to get to where we were heading was $35-38. It immediately soared to $140. Of course, if the situation is volatile, there's going to be consequences. Not only looting but vandalism and destruction as well. It is a known fact that until a certain point, people act decently, and then they lash out. The virus won't stop them, because what they'll take is a plasma TV from a store, and that TV looks nothing like the virus.

How would you explain the surge in international comic folklore around coronavirus? 

A. L.: It helps to overcome stress, because humour is an act of intellectualisation. It's a defence mechanism – to come up with a joke, one needs to take a step back and find something silly about the whole situation. It's a mechanism that helps to cope with intense emotions, to feel a little less anxious. Obviously, to some people (to those in the state of panic) it might seem upsetting. To these people, I suggest adjusting their filters on social media to reduce this content in their feed. If it helps some people, they shouldn't be mad at themselves for laughing; this is a good opportunity to get a different, funny perspective on the situation so that it didn't seem so horrendous.

About the media. Should we keep following the news all the time?

working from home lockdown
Scared people, highly anxious people start writing their texts; they are good at it, they instinctively relieve their stress. But at the same time, they fan fears of others/Inside coronavirus-hit small towns in northern Italy/Marzio Toniolo via REUTERS

A. L.: Absolutely not. Especially if one is prone to anxiety disorders, that's what psychologists recommend: choose one or two outlets and check them once in a couple of days, just to stay updated on the new regulations.  Of course, people shouldn't get completely detached from reality, because they can be fined for going outside, etc. But reading about it too often is not recommended. It will exacerbate the condition, reduce the ability to think critically and hinders maintaining self-control. Anxious people often think that if they are constantly up to date, they are more in control, but that's not true. Quite the opposite, it reduces the ability to manage the situation efficiently. If a person is constantly exposed to triggers, they can slip into panic, and that's a bad place to be.

S. E.: I will use the smallpox epidemics in the 1970-1980s as an example. I survived them without much worry. We were young, doctors were working and running around, and we felt much more at ease. Now, in retrospect, I suspect that it went like this because there were no social networks. Now there's all this riling up going on. Granted, I think social networks are a beautiful accomplishment. But like with any new invention, there are good things and bad things. When people invented motor vehicles, no one thought about how many people will die in car accidents. Social networks have an extremely negative by-product, especially in times of crisis. One piece of advice: under no circumstance believe what is written on social networks. It might seem that your trusted friends and acquaintances will tell the truth, unlike the government. But one should bear in mind that this friend is probably scared. They might want to tell the truth, but they lie. And in this case, rephrasing a famous literary character, the advice should be: when you read posts on social networks, never take them seriously.

We see all these instructions on how to wash our hands, how to disinfect the surfaces. How do we not become obsessed about such things?

washing hands amid coronavirus
People who regularly wash their hands don't need to be reminded 50 times a day to do that, as well as to wear a mask, avoid grabbing other people's arms and shoulders, and so on/Clay Banks via Unsplash

A.L.: Those who have a propensity for obsessive-compulsive disorders, obsessive thoughts, and actions, need to be very careful with such recommendations. I saw how it drove people mad. My advice to those who have a fear of germs and infection is to try to stay at the same level as before, not crank it up. Sometimes, people keep washing their hands, even though they didn't leave home. It is important to remember that all these recommendations are there for no-good boneheads, let's put it this way. For those who don't normally do it, so they really need to be reminded 50 times a day to wash hands, wear a mask, avoid grabbing other people's arms and shoulders, and so on.

It is less customary in Russian culture, whereas in Italy – and that's just my theory, I'm not an infectologist (sic) – the number infected has to do with the Italian and Spanish habit of greeting each other with a kiss (quite often strangers too), and touching each other during a conversation. So, that's what they're used to doing. I used to live in Spain. I still remember it. When a clerk in a store grabs you by the arm, a Russian would say, 'What's going on?' But it's a normal thing for them. So, you come to get a light bulb, and a sales lady just has to tell you about her kids and grandkids. Unfortunately, it increases the risk of contracting a disease. That's not something we do, but still, some people just have to shake hands with everyone in the room. These instructions are for them. If you're not one of these people, they're not for you. You know it all, and you do it all, you don't have to take it to heart.

If you or your relatives do get infected, how to avoid succumbing to panic and stay calm?

family coronavirus outbreak
If you have commitments – a cat, dog, etc. – you should probably make necessary arrangements regarding their accommodation. If you have children, and you're a single mom, then you should get a power of attorney who they should stay with/Evgeni Tcherkasski via Unsplash

A.L.: The correct answer is, I guess, there's no way. For this occasion, one should rather download the instruction in advance and follow it – call whoever it says and go wherever it says. Instructions are really helpful in critical situations. The thing is that the brain stops thinking straight. I worked such cases many times; I saw how it went: even a person who knows everything acts erratically in a critical situation. Some natural mechanisms that normally function well might fail you. So, you should let yourself be scared if you or your loved one contracts coronavirus. If you have commitments – a cat, dog, etc. – you should probably make necessary arrangements regarding their accommodation. If you have children, and you're a single mom, then you should get a power of attorney who they should stay with. I'm a mom myself, and I would be horrified by a situation like that. My kid is big enough now, but if she were two years old, the first thought I'd get since grandmas are out of the question is where the child would go. It's a very important question that we should ask ourselves, 'how would I care about those I'm responsible for?' And in the end, all we can do is hope for the loved one to get better since there's no efficient cure yet, it's only in trial stages. 

My partner works for a large translating company. Doctors from across the world send in their observations and reports. They're translated so the results and successful clinical trials performed by doctors on the frontline can be adopted by their peers. The whole world is busy solving this problem. All we can do now is hope for the best and follow the instructions we have.

Let's get back to responsibilities and children. Self-isolation is hard on the kids. How can we prepare children and their parents for staying behind closed doors at all times?

children at home on lockdown
It could be a good idea to think about potential activities together with your kid. It could be something creative, like building a very big Lego set – depending on how much you can afford to spend/Allen Taylor via Unsplash

A.L.: I really liked the idea the Canadian Prime Minister has put into practice. He made an address to the children. If the children are not too small, parents can make an address like that. He thanked them for assistance and cooperation, for helping their parents to deal with this difficult situation. He's got three kids himself; I think that's where he got this idea. Also, on the web, there are a lot of comics, pictures, short cartoons about the coronavirus, and how to explain it to your kid. It seems appropriate to say that we don't go anywhere because we care about other people, and ourselves too, we make sure that no one gets sick. Two or three-year-olds can relate to this. Of course, you should keep in mind that one conversation will not be enough; they won't remember it forever. So, you should bring it up carefully, remind them about it, use visual aids. For example, there's an episode about a virus in the Lilo and Stitch show or KokoRiki, and many other cartoon shows. People can just show these, even if they are not about coronavirus in particular. 

The other thing a parent might try is maintain a child's schedule so that they have something to be involved in. I recommend making a time-table for your kids, from older preschoolers to elementary school students. Take a large sheet of paper, draw a table. And ask your kid to make stickers or little pieces of paper in the shape of animals, and write a daily to-do list on it – what they need to do, and at what time. If your kid can write and read, you can do this. If they still can't, you can help them a little, 'now is the time for morning gymnastics; now is the free time for cartoons; now is the time to study; we have time for computer games' – so that they get the idea. And the balance is very important. If a parent works from home, they should break their workload into intervals: 'I'm with the child'/' I'm without the child.' You can ask your kids to draw a clock, or just use the hands of the clock to point out that 'I won't be able to be with you, you will have to think of something you can do on your own.'

Many parents worry about gadgets. If you are a single parent, you spend most of the time at home with your kid. You can't get any work done, I suggest downloading some content of your choosing to a tablet (computer, TV, etc.), and allowing your kid to watch it wearing headphones (or you could wear headphones while your kid is watching it). Otherwise, you can go crazy. It's impossible to work eight hours a day and look after your kid efficiently enough without letting them spend any time with gadgets. It's a real challenge. Of course, if you don't work, you can do it. But bear in mind that many parents whose children usually go to kindergarten are not accustomed to such pressure, and they still need to have some time for themselves. Otherwise, they will get sensory exhaustion from too much tactile contact with their children.

So, the main goal is to keep the children occupied? Is that true for the adults? Could staying in an enclosed space result in deviant behaviour? What could be the consequences?

coronavirus lockdown sensory deprivation
The most dangerous adversaries in quarantine, apart from the recession and the coronavirus itself, are either sensory overload or sensory deprivation/Rex Pickar via Unsplash

A.L.: The most dangerous adversaries in quarantine, apart from the recession and the coronavirus itself, are either sensory overload or sensory deprivation. If you're quarantined on your own, you have no cats or other pets, that is something that could happen. And by extension, if you're with someone, it could cause an overload. Lack of movement, sedentary lifestyle, changed schedule – people can't get out of bed if they have nothing to do. And it feels like a groundhog day; derealisation kicks in – everything seems unreal, meaningless, so, why would I get out of bed? So, you should find some activity for yourself. Whether you're on holiday or you still have work to do, you should try to keep moving. I've been working from home for the last ten years, so I already have a schedule. I know what I'll do and when. For those people who didn't see it coming, it might take some time to figure out such schedules, but it's something they need to do.

It is also essential not just to consume, but to produce as well. It's very hard if a person can't move forward within a certain process. It could be very useful to start writing, drawing, solving math problems, learning a foreign language, and trying to do something meaningful because it will lower your stress level.

Talking on the phone helps, of course. It's essential though not to talk to people who have gone off the chain or lost common sense. But it does help, by and large. There are a lot of courses and seminars now. Myself, I ran a few such group sessions as part of my project, because it holds great relevance today. People throw ZOOM-parties, I think it's a good idea. Our nervous system needs contact. When it sees someone's face, it reacts, so it's a useful preventive measure.

S. E.: Self-isolation could result in different behaviours. First of all, because of the limited reactions, one might have. A vast number of people cope with their internal fears via work and everyday activities. The main problem with isolation is that people are not used to spending time like this. So, when they say that it's like a holiday or vacation, that's not true. You plan your holidays. Even school children, if left to their own devices, know that they will have a great time outside: they will play, they will jump, they will do whatever. Here, they don't even have this. It wasn't planned, and then all of a sudden, people were told to stop going to work immediately. And there's a huge difference for those who switched to a non-contact form of working. Perhaps, they're not used to doing it from home. They're bugged by the noise, by other people at home who distract them, or by something else. People who know what to do have it much easier; they even somewhat enjoy it. Especially those who planned for it, 'If I have some spare time, I'll do this and this.' And now, you have options; you can watch a film, learn a language. For such people, it will be relatively easy to live through it. And those who'll remain idle, they will get angry, irritated, their aggression will increase.

Another type of deviant behaviour that could occur is alcoholism; we can't rule this one out. Even more, there are superstitions behind it too. If you're saturated with alcohol, you'll be healthier, and up to the challenge when the virus comes. It's a tricky one. Like with all the recommendations; when they say a glass of wine or a shot of vodka or cognac will help the body to cope with flu, cold, and so on. But how to limit yourself to one glass? And if it goes on for days on end, it's actually called binge drinking. Obviously, addiction specialists will need to prepare to deal with bouts of binge drinking.

There is a high risk of an increase in domestic violence in self-isolation...

S. E. It may come as a surprise to many that people who are technically husband and wife, who have kids, annoy each other if they communicate incessantly for extended periods. Of course, I assume that there will be an increase in domestic violence cases. Parents may be aggressive towards their child. Plus, who knows how many wives these husbands happen to have. Mostly, one can expect a surge in divorces. In isolation, it will suddenly become clear that there's no way you can live with this person under the same roof any longer. Yet, we shouldn't rely on China's experience, where an increase in divorces has already been reported. Because there are a lot of delaying factors – people had planned to get a divorce before the outbreak started, they were on the fence, but they didn't go through with divorce because they were quarantined, and the registry office was closed. One can assume that there will be more divorces, that's for sure.

Most people are concerned about an unstable economy and financial collapse due to COVID-19. How do you contain your fear of losing investments, falling being on mortgage payments, losing your business? 

empty cafes during lockdown in europe
What will happen to the economy, there's no way to say now. Of course, after a long slump, there will be a renaissance, but we don't know what it'll be like. People will process what happened/ REUTERS by Fabian Bimmer

A.L.: There's no way of doing that. It's essential to remember that you'll have to forget the idea of getting rid of anxiety completely – it won't go away. You can do exercises to lower your anxiety, or to keep away panic attacks (if you have them), to relieve the symptoms. There are such exercises. We have recently published them in our community Resource Psychology. The simplest method is to take a paper bag and breathe into it, or simply to sit down, to feel the ground under your feet. Staying completely away from the thoughts about what will happen after it's over is very hard. I wouldn't aim to achieve something unrealistic. You can get counselling. My colleagues and the project I'm involved with are available online. You can talk to a therapist to relieve the acute symptoms, to make this period more bearable. You can't remove the fear completely, and that is fine.

In your opinion, what would the consequences of the pandemic look like? How will current events influence the way people behave in the future? 

A.L.: It depends a lot on the scale of the consequences. For example, we had the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s – early 1990s. Did it make all people wear condoms? Not really, but for some people it did the trick. To say that everything will change for sure – we don't know it yet. Did World War II affect society? It did. Has the philosophy changed after it? It has. Has the art changed after it? Has it rendered violence, authoritarian regimes, nationalist sentiment impossible? No, it all remained. We know that afterwards, there were similar processes in other countries, some countries are still going through it. So, saying that everything will change forever – I don't think it's true.

Maybe certain things will move online. I guess you've heard this joke, 'All these meetings could've been an email.' I can say that I don't agree with the idea that all education must be done online now. Going to college is not only about getting an education but also about creating a community, and that is much harder to do online. Some things you can't learn without actually touching them, without doing something with your own hands. The same is true for habits. Will everyone start washing their hands? No, as soon as the threat is gone, some people will keep washing their hands, and some people won't. People won't stop flying. As soon as they can – financially and physically – travel somewhere, they will, for sure. It will all come back. So, I think there will be consequences, but I don't think they will be as global as they are described now. 

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this story are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RTD.