The outbreak shows us the psychological makeup of our society

Dr Evangelos Ntontis Lecturer in Social Psychology (Canterbury Christ Church University) on coronavirus.

There are a whole range of factors involved in how the situation will unfold. This will range from the individual level (e.g. individuals’ adherence to official guidelines) to the group level (e.g. how small and larger groups will regulate their behaviour and norms to limit the spread) and finally to the national level (e.g. what guidance will be provided and how, as well as how movements in and out of countries will be managed). So the answer is quite tricky, and no definite outcomes can be predicted.
However, the psychological element definitely plays a role at various levels. It is one thing to know the biological makeup of patients and medical issues surrounding it, but psychological and behavioural elements will play a crucial role in the spread of the virus and in how we respond to it. Such behaviours include keeping our hands and surfaces at home and work clean, being careful in how we sneeze or cough, self-isolating in case we experience symptoms, maintaining distance between ourselves and others we think might be ill, and seeking medical advice should we think we might carry the virus.

Apart from individual behaviours, social elements are also very important. For example, social groups can be sources of support, but at the same time enhanced trust between group members can increase the chances of sharing objects with others and can increase the risk of transmission, while reducing the chances to self-isolate or maintain a safe distance. Moreover, whether the public trusts the authorities and sees them as a credible source of information can affect whether guidelines will be followed in detail and limit the spread of the virus.

Importantly, I think that the viral outbreak shows us more things about the psychological makeup of our society than about itself. For example, it shows us how and why people might mistrust scientific evidence or the authorities trying to contain the spread and protect public health. It also shows us dominant ideological patterns of social inclusion/exclusion. For example, during the outbreak we noted that hostile sentiments were expressed against people from China, whereas other groups (e.g. refugees) were stigmatised as carriers of disease.

However, it is crucial to remember that it's not the outbreak that 'created racist attitudes'. The latter were always there, and the virus simply operated as a platform through which they could be expressed. The virus holds up a mirror to society and the identity of those that argue in relation to it. So in addition to behavioural change at the individual level, a successful response will try to tackle wider issues such as racism, stigma, and further marginalisation of minority groups that might prevent them from having access to crucial information and support.

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