Who do we listen to? Who is right? Who is balanced? How should we react to the risk of the new coronavirus?

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Since the WHO declared that we are dealing with a pandemic and as the number of confirmed cases rapidly increased, people reacted in many and varied ways.

Damaged goods, strewn around on messy and almost empty shelves, broken jars on the store floor, no available shopping baskets or queues 3-4 times longer at cash registers describe a first type of reaction. Generally, more agitated than usual, more vocal and more suspicious of others, people were rushing to stock up. Not having a clear idea at first of what to buy, making uninformed calculations, they instinctively cleared the shelves and bought up to ten times more than usual.

In the supermarkets I did not see anyone taking pictures of others, but many of those who passed a pharmacy where hundreds of people stood in a queue stopped for a few seconds to take pictures of the crowd. Some even took selfies. I saw there the whole range of facial expressions that relate to amazement, dismay or amusement. But I also witnessed the frustration of another passer-by: “Why is everyone taking pictures? What’s wrong with you people?!”

An older gentleman with a calm, fatherly, slightly condescending tone, explained to a lady that it is enough to wash your hands and not panic. The virus is eliminated by washing, he said, and it is enough to take care of hygiene. The lady didn’t answer.

On WhatsApp and Facebook, multiple shared messages warn us about the imminence of the darkest scenarios. Others, on the other hand, are adamant that we have nothing to worry about—we’re just dealing with another, slightly more dangerous, flu.

Drink as much lemon juice and ingest as much vitamin C as possible, relatives, friends and acquaintances insist. Others claim that taking vitamin C is a big mistake.

On this map of opinions and reactions we try to draw a point, striving to place it as close as possible to the (subjective) centre of the spectrum. We are all looking for the optimal reaction, both for ourselves and for our loved ones. But what is the simplest way to achieve this? The first ones from whom we seek counsel should probably be the specialists.

How do you distinguish good advice from bad during a crisis?

Unfortunately, not all who claim to be a specialist will speak the same truth, reminds Peter M. Sandman, one of the most prominent crisis communication experts in the US.

But Sandman assures us that the true expert can easily be identified: instead of criticising and ridiculing people’s adaptive or crisis-adjusting reactions, the true expert naturally encourages legitimate and natural reactions and assists people in finding the most balanced response.

Instead of criticising and ridiculing people’s adaptive or crisis-adjusting reactions, the true expert naturally encourages legitimate and natural reactions and assists people in finding the most balanced response.

Such a specialist will call us out when we tend to exaggerate and advise us to exercise precautions that have been adjusted to the magnitude of the risk at the time of the discussion (in other words, not to take drastic measures before the crisis has even reached us). This is because disproportionate reactions burden us unnecessarily, both mentally and physically. Equally, however, the true specialist will draw our attention to the fact that no one knows the direction in which things will evolve and, therefore, it is good to remain constantly alert and prepared to raise our level of response and concern.

There are also specialists we should not listen to, says Sandman—those who suggest that we don’t need to worry, take precautions or even think about safety measures, until we are specifically told it is time to do so. These ‘experts’ maintain that our natural reactions and the impulse to take preventive measures are irrational or exaggerated. However, normal people do make such projections and calculations. They do imagine the worst possible scenarios and take action, even if sometimes prematurely.

The true specialist knows that entering the crisis adaptation process is a far cry from being caught unprepared for the crisis. That’s why it’s not worth listening to those who say we shouldn’t have such reactions, says Sandman. What we really need is the support to correctly choose our reactions and balance them. But how can we balance them without first understanding them?

What does a crisis adaptation reaction mean?

There are four aspects to a crisis adaptation reaction, which, although normal, in some senses can be considered an overreaction:

Stopping. When they find out about a risk, people enter into a state of expectation characterised by the tendency to stop doing things that can increase the risk. In the case of coronavirus, many tend to stop doing even the things that they are still able and allowed to do even during the state of emergency.

Hypervigilance. People watch TV news more often, read more often in print or online media. They become more cautious with the people around them, who they consider to be potential carriers of the virus, and more intolerant of the behaviours they consider to be risky.

Risk customisation. People are beginning to imagine what it would be like to get sick. It is not long before they begin to imagine that the virus might already be around them or that they may have already contracted it.

Additional precautions. Thus, the tendency to take extra precautions appears, many of them at least premature or completely unnecessary.

Despite fears that these reactions are irrational and disproportionate, Peter Sandman argues in favour of a completely different perception. The crisis adaptation reaction might in fact be beneficial and necessary.

Funnily enough, the adaptive reaction is healthy

This adaptive reaction is healthy because it is the result of perfectly healthy instincts. The fact that some of our spontaneous reactions become the subject of jokes for those around us is explained by the fact that crisis adjustment reactions are not fully consciously controllable. But not even other people’s mocking should cause us to suppress our crisis adaptation instinct. It is sufficient, based on the right information and discernment, to weigh our reactions. Shame should not be a factor, and neither should group pressure.

Those who proclaim with sarcasm or superiority that fear of the virus is more contagious than the virus itself have not understood what is most important, namely that the last thing we want is for a virus to spread faster than fear of it!

Secondly, the fact that fear—as the main reaction to the crisis—appears very quickly after recognising a risk is actually a benefit. Those who sarcastically proclaim that fear of the virus is more contagious than the virus itself have not understood what is most important, namely that the last thing we want is for a virus to spread faster than the fear of it! Taking a potential risk seriously is a fundamental reaction to survival. Obviously, the fear reaction must be tempered by the best information available so that it does not turn into panic. In other words, it’s good to be cautious (to think about the steps that are needed to protect yourself from a threat you’re afraid of) but it’s just as important not to become paranoid or drawn into conspiracy theories (to believe that there is criminal intent or a large conspiracy behind the new coronavirus).

By far, however, the most important beneficial aspects of the adaptation reaction are the anticipation of the crisis, which creates the context of preparation for it, and, finally, reducing the risk of overreaching later, when the crisis has already occurred. In other words, it is better to be on the alert sooner, to prepare early, with the risk of taking some slightly exaggerated measures, than to wake up unprepared when the crisis has hit. The principle is: better to be cautious than to regret it later (of course, keeping a reasonable margin for approximating the risk and the need to take action).

Finally, even if it is slightly exaggerated, the reaction to the crisis does not usually become harmful, because it is temporary. Very few people remain trapped in a long-term overreaction, Sandman points out.

Little safe conclusions to big uncertain questions

Coping reactions are natural, healthy and beneficial. Even if they tend to be somewhat exaggerated, they are temporary and, because they appear very quickly after recognising the risk, they protect us from exaggerated reactions later, when it is vital to react appropriately to the crisis.

However, in order to avoid highly disproportionate reactions, it is important to be well informed from several verified sources. It is not enough to react; it is also important that our reactions are well directed and well balanced.

Staying one or two steps ahead of the risk by taking preventive measures is not proof of panic, but proof of vision and caution. Not to laugh at other people’s reactions, but to acknowledge their natural motives and to guide them to an equilibrium, is proof of civic sense and Christian morality. Contributing to the dissemination of quality information that has been verified, and avoiding the dissemination of information that cannot be verified, is proof of discernment and responsibility.

Finally, being willing to help others, instead of being absorbed exclusively by your and your family’s needs, is a gesture that has not been discussed much, yet is one of the most genuine human expressions of care. An association from Warsaw beautifully reminds us that we are still capable of such good deeds, even while in isolation.

Check out all our COVID-19 coverage. We update constantly.

Norel Iacob is Editor in Chief of ST Network and Semnele timpului.