Many experts sensed an imminent pandemic before the Covid-19. This was the case with Steven Taylor, professor of psychology at the University of Vancouver. His book "Psychology of Pandemics" addressed the issue from the perspective of crowd psychology and its influence on the spread or limitation of contagion
The Covid-19 has brought together new elements of understanding and new proposals for the policies charged with stemming this scourge.
What have you learned during this pandemic that you had not yet discovered when you published your book on the psychology of pandemics?
Much had been observed before, but this pandemic has allowed new psychological phenomena to be explored in much more detail. Our research, for example, has shown that people who are most afraid of the socio-economic consequences of Covid-19 are more likely to wear masks or other protective equipment. In contrast, people who think pandemic risks are exaggerated tend not to wear masks, are reluctant to get vaccinated, and despise social distancing. There is a constellation of negative reactions among them, of rejection of any form of control. This was not so in previous pandemics. Younger people are more prone to neglect social distancing for several reasons, not least because they do not feel unsafe, and because many believe the dangers of Covid-19 have been exaggerated.
In the western world, between 25 and 30% of people do not want to be vaccinated. Is it surprising?
This is nothing new at all. In fact, during previous pandemics, the number of vaccine refusals was higher. In 2009 for example, during the H1N1 pandemic in Europe and North America, about 50% of people did not want to be vaccinated. That said, in the case of Covid-19, the proportion of people who will reject the vaccine will increase over time. This rejection will be fueled by how the vaccine is designed, with the widespread feeling that manufacturing has been rushed too much. In addition, vaccines from previous pandemics were mostly based on influenza viruses, and had good results. This one will be entirely new. There is hesitation related to both the actual effectiveness of the vaccine and the potential side effects.
Anti-Covid tracking and alerting applications are also a source of great suspicion. How do you explain the paradox between the frantic sharing of futile personal data on social networks, and the stubborn refusal to put anonymous information at the service of the community, in a period of serious crisis?
The main reason is that of control. People entrust a lot of data to Facebook and other social networks, but they do so on purpose. For government applications, many feel that their individual freedoms are despised. The issue is not that of data sharing, but of direct control over that data.
"Finding a culprit can make groups feel like they better understand and come to terms with grief."
In 1968, the Hong Kong flu killed 1 million people worldwide, the same as Covid-19 so far. Most of the people over sixty today seem to have totally forgotten about this event. The media amnesia is also striking. Has the relationship to death changed over the past fifty years?
In times of crisis, people tend to develop psychological myopia. This is what happened during the period of the Spanish flu, which took place during the First World War. This time, I think it will be different and that no one will forget this crisis. The impact was global and massive, everyone was directly and indirectly affected.
At the dawn of the 2020s, beyond Covid-19, the number of threats is incredibly high, with profound changes in lifestyles, underway or to come, in all areas. Paradoxically, can these anxiety-inducing uncertainties make humans more resilient and aware over time?
This is the concept of Post-Traumatic Growth. We know that about half of people exposed to traumatic events say they are stronger after the fact, that they value their family, loved ones and their community more. But another half does not show the same resilience. We are already seeing post-traumatic stress syndromes in people who have been infected with the coronavirus, although this is only a minority.
Could certain health habits born during the pandemic, such as avoiding all physical contact with non-intimate people, or surfaces, could they persist in the very long term, in a pathological way? We know, for example, that the Black Death (1347-1351) greatly contributed to the irrational phobia of rats …
This could indeed continue in people who already had a history of obsessive-compulsive disorder. These disorders arise from the conjunction of genetic vulnerability and environmental stress.
Beyond their various measures, did governments communicate well with citizens?
There have been a lot of disparities. The most effective would have been to say things clearly as quickly as possible, with consistency and transparency. This was essential, even to indicate that the outlook was uncertain, that there were many unknowns, and that efforts would be made to find answers. Giving a name to this coronavirus, Covid-19, has also made it possible to limit false interpretations. The name sometimes given at the outset, such as "the Wuhan flu" or "the Chinese virus" had a racist undertone.
Another mistake was to make contradictory injunctions, especially on the lack of usefulness of wearing masks at the start of the pandemic, followed six months later by a completely opposite message.
Some preliminary results on treatments, like the one based on hydroxychloroquine, were announced too quickly, before full studies were carried out. This has led desperate people to try this type of treatment, sometimes at their peril.
In addition, the name given to some vaccine research programs, such as Operation Warp Speed in the United States, has also undermined public confidence in the quality and risks caused by excessive precipitation. .
From a purely psychological point of view, which consequence of Covid-19 will prove to be the most devastating? Isolation? Domestic violence? The anxiety of losing a job? …
The impact of a pandemic develops dynamically, over a long period of time. Panic buying occurs at the start, domestic violence in a second stage, followed by depression. A second confinement in the middle of winter would greatly increase the risk of depression, or even suicides. It all depends, of course, on individual circumstances. For the youngest, the impact is mainly socio-economic, with few medical risks, while for the older ones, the concerns are mainly medical or social.
"Protests led by vocal minorities have garnered a lot of media attention, which may have given the misleading impression that these movements are more common than they actually are."
The Covid-19 has killed many more people than the terrorist attacks which have deeply marked the spirits. Does being able to attribute direct responsibility to brutal deaths change the way we deal with these collective tragedies?
The approach is similar, because in either case, these deaths are difficult to explain. They are difficult to predict, control and explain, although their shape is very different.
Finding a culprit can make groups feel better about understanding and accepting grief. This is what prompted some to blame the Chinese at the start of the epidemic. In the United States, some have imagined that the Covid-19 was a biological weapon created by the Chinese … while in China, the Americans have sometimes been referred to as the creators of this biological weapon. This is also why conspiracy theories abound during a pandemic. It is a way to cope with an unforeseeable, mysterious and difficult to accept event.
Faced with the second wave, the communication of the authorities differs greatly from one country to another, despite comparable situations. Alarmism and threat are sometimes privileged, while in other countries citizens are empowered. Is fear more decisive in terms of respect for the rules, or can it on the contrary lead to revolts?
The different communication strategies – with in short, threats of fines on one side and a civic appeal on the other – can work, although the second approach is preferable and less oppressive. Frightened people usually follow the recommendations. Historically, revolts have been rare and are the exception rather than the rule. But sometimes they do. Since the onset of Covid-19, small-scale protests led by vocal minorities have garnered a lot of media attention, which may have given the misleading impression that these movements are more common than they actually are.