Overcoming COVID Paranoia
In all the talk of “the new normal,” academicians and practitioners have largely missed out on the paranoia and fear that has become a part of everyday life. Ranging from self-destructive behavior to over-sanitization to borderline agoraphobic behavior, all our minds have been impacted in some way or another. Some of these behaviors are driven by rational thinking. But a lot has been driven by the irrational and confirmation bias inherent in our minds.
I have seen paranoia within my own family, as have most, and paranoia that has gripped broader perceptions. Some of the common ones are triggered by a lack of clarity in communication, the human ability to get carried away by emotions, and heterogeneity of behavior in those around us.
- A big one is paranoia driven by an overzealous world of statisticians. While data is essential, most people do not have enough grasp of statistics to understand the difference between %s and absolute numbers, let alone complex visualizations. And it seems most of the experts are divided upon numbers. 0 to100 to 120 may be good in a city that has seen peaks of several hundreds of thousands. It may be bad where numbers have been low. But focusing on a 100% increase and 20% increase seems to have triggered fear. Sensational journalism combining time scales to reporting 120% does not make life easier. It helps when one focuses on a single source of numbers and looks at one unit of measure. And focusing on a silver lining rather than letting the %s fit into our confirmation biases goes a long way to put our minds at rest.
- Excessive information is harmful beyond a point because it causes noise. A most recent example is a Twitter-addicted world going into an uproar over Flurona. 80% of the first reactions post the news from Israel spelled it wrong — “Florona.” And they remaining thought it was a new variant! Some of this included reliable news channels. And for most of the population, for whom research is limited to social media and the first ten Google search results, this has led to an additional layer of paranoia. It helps to not rely on Social Media for information and may be read beyond the first ten search results. And most importantly, patience proves a virtue here. When a piece of news first emerges, give it a couple of days before getting all bunched up.
- In the last decade or two, most of us have gotten used to some level of paranoid life. Most often, our paranoia was something concrete. Terrorists. Pollution. For the so-inclined, Global Warming. Political conspiracy theories. These are life-sized problems with a clearly defined enemy that, in some respect, can be concretely defined. A virus cannot be seen and evades our powers of rational definition. And scary imagery of a sphere with alien-looking horns sticking out does not help! Yes, it is invisible. Yes, it is incredibly light. This does not mean it is omnipresent. The global casualty numbers would have been two to three hundred percent higher if it were. It is not the plague!
- Most of us, just from a layman’s experience, grapple with very large numbers. Globally we have 293 Million active cases (as of today). This seems like a considerable number. And I agree is it much higher than it should have been in a utopian world. My intent is not to belittle the disease. But we forget that the world is almost 8 billion strong and 1 billion is 1000 million. So 3% of the world’s population has been affected. And only 0.07% have died. Twice as many people have died from cancer last year. It helps to put large numbers in context. We have all lost people near and not-so-near. And it is undoubtedly a tragedy. But a little context helps belay some of the paranoia.
- Prejudices that we have lead to the worst forms of paranoia. I have seen confirmation biases leading to paranoia. I have made painstaking efforts to convince people that “Made in China” does not equate to containing COVID. And the less fortunate amongst us, who do not get to work from home, are not automatic carriers of COVID. Yes, there is a higher probability, but. It helps to focus on science and not our inherent biases. At the receiving end of all our choices, these days, is another human being!
The times are uncertain. And more often than not, it is natural to feel helpless. If we focus on the science and exert a conscious effort to live by some level of discipline in our thinking, thereby our actions, we can prevail over the paranoia. It is okay to be afraid, but it is not that difficult to avoid psychosis taking over.