A number of people have told me in the past week that what’s going on around them somehow doesn’t seem real. That’s not so surprising considering how quickly our reality seems to have changed from one moment to the next. We’re suddenly shrouded in a great deal of uncertainty and faced with a barrage of news reporting an ever-changing reality. Not only is there uncertainty about Covid-19 itself, but we are now faced with uncertainty on many levels. We’re cancelling events, travel plans and work appointments, with many of us working from home with no idea when we’ll return to the workplace. In addition, the worldwide situation seems to be changing hourly, with new reports constantly coming in about new confirmed cases, deaths and imposed restrictions on communities.
With uncertainty, of course, comes anxiety and fear. Unfortunately, we can’t do a lot about the uncertainty related to Covid-19 itself but we can help support ourselves by understanding our feelings and responses to what we’re currently facing as a community. So, what is this anxiety about exactly?
Loss of personal control – Since Covid-19 is a new strain of a large family of coronavirus diseases never seen before in humans, scientists and medical professionals are still striving to understand the true nature of the illness. A lack of knowledge inevitably leads to fear since it’s very difficult to fight something you don’t truly understand. Knowledge and predictability have the power to calm us and make us feel safe. Therefore, what we’re currently facing leads many to feel a loss of control. In the absence of such control, people naturally try to restore it in any way they can. Stockpiling of food is one way, giving people some reassurance that in the absence of a vaccine, medical knowledge etc, at least they’re doing something to take care of themselves and their loved ones.
Memories of past pandemics – Within our collective unconscious resides memories of past pandemics which resulted in tragic loss of life. Furthermore, owing to our education, most of us are also aware of and have learnt about past pandemics, such as the Great Plague, Black Death, Spanish flu, cholera, smallpox and more recently, SARS. Despite the huge advances in science and medicine since those earlier pandemics, such unconscious memories and factual reports remind us of our mortality and the fragility of human life.
Fear drives fear – When I saw reports about people fighting over toilet paper, I remember stopping for a moment and thinking ‘Should I be racing out to get toilet paper?’ Realising that I couldn’t think of any rational reason I needed to do this, I became aware of how we can easily absorb and take on the anxiety and fear of other people. The stockpiling of toilet paper actually started with a rumour that most toilet paper is produced in Wuhan, the city where Covid-19 originated and is currently on lock-down. Subsequently, people began stockpiling, fueling a stockpiling frenzy even for those who knew nothing of the rumour.
Uncertainty in the world around us – Feeling that the world around us is uncertain and dangerous leads us to try to restore control and regain some kind of certainty in our immediate surroundings. We begin to classify people and places as ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’. What we know and are familiar with tends to feel safer. Unfortunately, this has led people to discriminate against and outwardly condemn non-Maltese persons, for instance. Yes, all cases of Covid-19 so far have been imported, but Maltese people travelling home from abroad are just as likely to carry the virus as foreigners.
Fear of death – There’s nothing like a pandemic to shake up our existential fears. The Covid-19 virus seems to favour the young and healthy. However, judging by the number of young people who have spoken to me about their fear of contracting the illness and dying, this observation hasn’t eliminated all anxiety. For many of us, the fear of death is always there, only to resurface when someone close to us dies or when we hear reports of large numbers of people losing their lives.
Isolation – Feeling isolated exacerbates fear and anxiety since our contact with people can calm us and help us feel connected to a wider community. Voluntary and mandatory quarantine measures are essential for the current situation but place people in a position of trying to fill time which would previously have been filled with socialising, exercising outdoors/in the gym, going out and interacting with colleagues in the workplace.
Uncertainty about the future – Most of us need to be able to plan ahead and know what we’re doing in a day/week/month or a year’s time. At present, we don’t know if we’ll be on lockdown in a week, if we can plan a holiday in the coming months, and when we’ll be able to go back into work. Therefore, we are left in a kind of limbo, waiting for those in power to make decisions which directly impact our movements, well-being and stability. We can’t realistically make any plans, which goes against our human need for certainty and order.
Fear of loss – The Covid-19 virus has led to a dramatic slow-down in economic activity, leading to job loss and reduced income for the self-employed and business owners. That’s unless you sell food and toilet paper, of course. This creates anxiety about being able to provide for oneself and any dependents, particularly as we have no idea when the virus will be under control. Failure to plan and estimate our recovery is the natural result, adding yet another dimension to our already-existing anxiety.
With the above in mind, it’s important to acknowledge that fear and anxiety are emotions which will naturally surface during this period. Whilst we can’t go out and find a solution ourselves, we can keep ourselves and others safe, find healthy ways to manage our anxieties, and try to remain connected with others. In my next article I’ll explore healthy coping mechanisms as well as strategies for managing your emotions and relationships during periods of quarantine and social distancing.
Until then, remain calm and trust that this pandemic will pass.