Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Re-shape Human Behavior and Attitudes?

Forty, fifty, perhaps even a hundred years from now, the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic will, in all likelihood, be considered a turning point in the history of humankind. Comprehensive scientific studies will be conducted and hundreds of books will be authored on this stunning event which has brought the world to a standstill. As yet, there is no certainty regarding when and how the pandemic will end – much of this depends on the speed at which a vaccine is developed and its aftermath – clinical trials and approvals for human application.

Globally, economic activity across most non-technology sectors has slowed considerably, jobs have disappeared, and the world is heading towards a severe recession. Countries have put in place extreme public health measures – including social distancing and mandatory/voluntary quarantine – to contain the virus’ spread.

All these crisis response measures are behavioral; that is, they call for adjustments to and a re-adaptation of activities which are contrary to the social structure on which humans thrive. Will there be any long-term outcomes of this short-term but unparalleled breakdown in social structure?

In an uncertain scenario where the exact scale of the coronavirus crisis is still unknown and no end seems to be in sight, making any ‘permanent’ predictions regarding the future of human behavior will be an exercise in futility. Moreover, human choices are driven by the subconscious mind, and these choices are often spontaneous rather than being premeditated.

Human beings are “born to choose.” The desire for control is not cultivated through learning; rather, it is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human. Exercising a choice is perhaps a response to fulfilling a psychological need, just as the consumption of food is a response to fulfilling a physical need (hunger). Choices let us exercise control over the environment by selecting behaviors that favor the achievement of desired outcomes and the avoidance of unwanted outcomes.

This loss of choice and control over the day-to-day environment is influencing behavioral responses during the pandemic. In the United States, various anti-lockdown lobbies with vested interests are protesting against politicians who, they claim, are forcing them to cede their freedom & livelihood and who are “controlling our lives.” The added element of fear has further affected human behavior – people are hoarding toilet paper & masks, food & groceries, and other essentials despite assurances of no shortages. Fear and uncertainty are leading to behavioral decision-making which may, at times, appear irrational.

The tendency to gain control may often result in actions which can be counterproductive – the anti-lockdown protests are a case in point since there is the risk of a surge in infections, a scenario in which the lockdown is likely to be extended even further.

Behavior is often influenced by “ease and convenience.” This may explain why hand sanitizers are in short supply whereas soap is not, although washing hands with soap and water is the best solution to stop the virus from spreading. The ease of using hand sanitizers supersedes the effectiveness (and even the lower cost) of using soap.

In case of the coronavirus pandemic, the outcome for the postponement of activities due to lockdowns is ambiguous and its timing is uncertain. The ‘reward’ for locking oneself at home and putting off routine activities is ‘not getting infected with the coronavirus in future.’

It is, in effect, an avoidance of something (an infectious disease) and not a material or tangible gain. There is also the onus of living under extreme measures to protect others’ health as much as one’s own. People are being asked to adjust their behaviors to benefit the larger community. What makes this a difficult behavioral change is that these adjustments need to be made for people who are complete strangers, and with whom there is no social interaction or connection.

Researchers have attempted to establish the inter-connectedness of social systems and disease systems. Current scientific models deployed for predicting the emergence and evolution of pathogens in host populations do not factor in the critical role played by social behavior and reactions to infectious diseases. If ‘social modeling’ is included in existing models for disease outbreak and prevention, it may aid better public health responses to dramatic changes in human behavior during outbreaks of infectious diseases.

The coronavirus crisis has called for a collective change in behavior of a scale and intensity that is unprecedented in modern history. Recent statistical analyses have indicated that factors such as culture, gender, ethnicity, occupational status and personality type are all drivers of behavioral compliance or non-compliance. An important determinant of behavioral compliance is citizens’ level of confidence and trust in their governments.

Research on recent Ebola epidemics in African countries has attempted to uncover the reasons for “persistent transmission” of the virus. It was found that during the 2014-16 outbreak in Liberia, citizens who distrusted their government had lower compliance with Ebola control policies; these outbreaks were also characterized by “social resistance” ranging from passive non-compliance to outright violence. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which is grappling with world’s second-largest Ebola outbreak since 2018, researchers found that besides demographic and socioeconomic factors, “community attitudes and behaviors” may also be promoting the disease.

Although China has been controversially lauded by the World Health Organization (WHO) for its aggressive response to control the spread of the coronavirus, its missteps and authoritarianism have led to a “generational awakening” and a small but noticeable attitudinal shift among Chinese youth. Although affecting only a fraction of the younger population, this behavioral change can be considered a major step forward in a country where even the slightest act of dissent is termed unpatriotic and dealt with brutally.

Sociocultural and religious practices have the potential to complicate public health measures and increase the level of behavioral non-compliance. Faith-based belief systems and misconceptions often lead people to disregard scientific advice which severely inhibits the efficacy of preventive measures.

India is a prime example where mass behavior is influenced by sociocultural & religious practices and the associated misinformation & rumor-mongering which accompanies them. While one religion is guilty for blatantly promoting cow urine to fight the coronavirus, another needs to take the blame for holding a massive religious congregation which violates all social distancing norms. And here, it is not just the general public which is culpable; even elected representatives, government agencies and public health officials have played a part in promoting such pseudoscience and misleading the public.

Besides India, the irresponsible behavior of attending crowded religious gatherings in flagrant defiance of state orders has been observed in the United States, Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Pakistan and South Korea. In February 2020, more than half the coronavirus cases in South Korea were linked to a religious cult, while another cluster of cases was linked to a church in Busan. Ultra-orthodox religious leaders are exhorting their flocks to believe in the power of prayer and attend congregations.

When disaster strikes, it is a natural instinct for people to take solace in organized religious activities which also foster community bonding. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in all organized mass gatherings being banned. Religion has transitioned from churches, mosques, temples and synagogues to people’s homes and their digital devices. Traditional behavior has given way, even if it is temporary, to a new behavior which is both convenient and relatively effortless. Is this the future of religion and will people adapt their behaviors to this new normal? Again, it will be premature to make any assumptions when so many variables are unknown.

A common refrain heard everywhere is that “the world will not be the same” once the coronavirus passes. But what is it that is going to be different? And will this change impact mass behavior?

Sociologists believe that to overcome the pandemic, “a more rapid change of behavior” is needed compared to any other time in recent history. What remains unknown is how long these behavioral changes will need to enforced, and whether they will lead to a permanent shift in social behavior as we know it. Mass behaviors will also be dictated by the information which will be transmitted by governments to their citizens.

A recent study analyzed the lessons learned (and not learned) from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. The researchers highlight that the “three leading threats to global public health are attitudinal: hubris, isolationism, and distrust.” These attitudinal threats are perpetrated by governments and global leaders. The epic proportion with which the coronavirus has ravaged the United States betrays a significant lack of understanding of the first two attitudes – hubris and isolationism – in controlling an infectious disease. American citizens were probably given a false sense of security which shaped their behavioral responses to the pandemic initially.

The coronavirus pandemic has also given rise to a dangerous trend of xenophobia – this is true not just in the United States but in other countries as well, including India. Repeatedly branding the coronavirus a “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus” promotes prejudices which can become deep-rooted in societies and permanently alter their behaviors towards people from specific communities or countries. In India, citizens from the northeastern part of the country have become targets of violence and hate crimes due to their physical resemblance to people from southeast Asian countries.

Among the most serious behavioral impacts of containment measures will be the rapid deployment of contact tracing surveillance measures by authoritarian regimes and even democracies. There is no transparency on how this data – which flouts most, if not all, privacy and civil liberty norms – will be used, and if the surveillance will become a permanent fixture of society. Fear of contracting the virus may, in future, give way to the fear of being under the constant watch of an Orwellian ‘Big Brother.’

The economic consequences of lockdowns and quarantines have already started setting in. Unemployment has skyrocketed – industries are furloughing or laying off large numbers of people. There are allegations that stimulus packages have been designed keeping in mind future electoral gains and not the real needs of the people.

In India, a hurriedly-announced 21-day lockdown (later extended by 19 days) led to a reverse-migration of contract workers at a scale never seen before. Most, if not all, of them are staring at an uncertain future. Companies will use flimsy excuses to fire workers, even if those workers are protesting the lack of personal protective equipment and non-adherence to basic levels of safety and hygiene. Whether this leads to a resurgence of labor movements or threatens to become an anarchy is an unanswered question.

Long periods of isolation and severance of social ties will give many people a new perspective of life. The prolonged stint of loneliness will lead to deep introspection and philosophizing about issues such as our purpose in the world or the frailty of human beings. It is too soon to say if these issues will shape the attitudes of a minority group of people or if they will re-shape thinking at a global level.

And for some, the pandemic will be nothing but a blip in a lifetime which has otherwise been normal, and which is expected to be normal in future. The responses of such individuals are shaped by normalcy bias – a psychological state of mind (also considered a state of denial) which underestimates the possibility as well as the effects of a disaster. Think of spring breakers in Florida or even a tweet from Elon Musk on 6 March 2020 saying, “The coronavirus panic is dumb.”

No one has any answers at this time. However, we can prepare the grounds for the future by thinking now and planning ahead, and by also accepting that some changes which we are currently experiencing will become a permanent part of our lives. This is a thought which Yuval Noah Harari has articulated in a recent article: “Many short-term emergency measures will become a fixture of life. That is the nature of emergencies.”

Most importantly, the fight against the pandemic and its aftermath has to be a globally coordinated effort. And this will mean a change in attitude towards information sharing and cooperation between countries and governments. This leaves little room for hubris and isolationism.

The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” (Alan Watts)

Gautam Mehra

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