Do you remember the time when the Covid-19 pandemic started? Remember when the daily death toll would actually frighten us? When going out for groceries felt like a battle on its own? When all everyone could talk about was the virus?
When the pandemic began in Feb 2020, most of us were on the edge of their seats, waiting for any news that would make us feel more prepared for the next day. We were concerned for their co-workers, friends, family and ourselves. We followed all the safety protocols to the T, because following them before we stepped out of our home almost felt like a ritual.
Wear our gloves- wear our mask- wear our face shield- carry a sanitizer- step out.
However, over the past few months, we might have fallen back to their pre-COVID behaviour. We might all be meeting up for social events, gathering in groups, not following social distancing, and might not even be wearing our masks properly when we are out and exposed. We have lost our vigilance; we might no longer take the risk of the virus seriously. The number of positive cases now might just seem like numbers that keep fluctuating.
Social scientists have known that we perceive risks differently. The acute (sudden & severe) risk, such as a tsunami or earthquake, is perceived more seriously and precautions are taken. The chronic (constantly recurring) risk, such as car accidents, are not taken as seriously. The novel coronavirus was initially perceived as an acute threat but now it is morphing into a more chronic one.
This habituation to threat is one of the basic principles of exposure therapy. It’s a type of therapy which is used to help individuals manage their extreme phobias. The principle is simple, the more we are exposed to a threat, the less intimidating it seems to us.
Hence, initially, when the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lockdown started, we were staying at home, ordering in, working, baking different varieties of bread and social distancing. When we started stepping out for groceries, came back home (washed our hands and had a bath) and realised that we hadn’t caught the virus, we went out again the next day, and the next, and the next and so on. Slowly, we put our guard down. It wasn’t long before the lockdown restrictions were relieved and we started going out for brunch, to the movies and living their old lives again.
Paul Slovic, the author of The Perception of Risk says,
“You have an experience and the experience is benign. It feels okay and comfortable. It’s familiar. Then you do it again. If you don’t see anything immediately bad happening, your concerns get deconditioned.”
Ann Bostrom of University of Washington believes that humans have a tendency to grow numb to increasing numbers of deaths and diagnoses. Our tendency to review risk through emotion also causes more harm than good. We take a risk, depending on how we feel about it. If we flout the lockdown guidelines and go out and meet our friends, we get an immediate reward of being with people who we like. Even though this reward is important, it is short lived. On the other hand, if we stay at home and follow the lockdown protocols, we do not get any immediate reward but in the long run, it will help keep the positive cases to a minimum.
Desensitization to the deaths and risks of Covid-19 is also known as pandemic fatigue, which according to WHO is “a natural and expected reaction to sustained adversity in people’s lives.” Therefore, being desensitized to the pandemic is natural. It’s like memorising the switch board for the lights and fans in a new house, it takes some time but eventually it becomes a habit. It is the brain’s way of adapting to an ongoing pandemic.
So, if you read the news today and the death toll just seems like numbers, it’s okay. You don’t need to feel guilty about it – you might be burnt out and tired. Mainly, you might have gotten used to those numbers, and the fear or stress almost seems natural now. However, we still need to try our best to follow the protocols in order to prevent the spread of the virus. Whether that’s sanitising, wearing a mask (double masking if it’s a cloth one) or staying indoors as much as we can. It’s been a long pandemic journey, but it’s not yet over and we need to do our best to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe.