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Fear of the Pandemic Kind


Photo by Marina Vitale on Unsplash

In the last week of July 2020, a 36-year-old Indian man poisoned his 4-year-old daughter and 28-year-old wife before hanging himself. Conflicting reports emerged about why. Some media outlets said he feared losing his job, while others said he was frightened of contracting the virus and passing it on to his family.


But there was little doubt about the underlying cause: fear.


Even as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic in early March, it was acutely aware of its mental health ramifications. “Fear, worry, and stress are normal responses to perceived or real threats, and at times when we are faced with uncertainty or the unknown. So it is normal and understandable that people are experiencing fear in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said.


Around the same time, in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said: “Fear and anxiety about a new disease and what could happen can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions in adults and children,” and advised that, “Coping with stress in a healthy way will make you, the people you care about, and your community stronger.”


Both WHO and the CDC populated their sites with information about mental health resources, a plethora of helplines, and coping mechanisms to manage mental health.


While health bodies worldwide scrambled to fight the virus and the repercussions it unleashed, scientists were quick to study all kinds of issues around it. Several of these revolved around fear. The Journal of Anxiety Disorders published a study conducted in the Netherlands as early as March 2020 that underlined that the virus was causing increased fear and worry. More disquieting, in March, Clinical Psychiatry published a conceptual analysis called ‘The Four Horsemen of Fear’, referencing the Biblical apocalypse, where the authors identified four “interrelated dialectical domains” of fear that the pandemic had generated: “(1) fear of the body/fear for the body, (2) fear of significant others/fear for significant others, (3) fear of not knowing/fear of knowing, and (4) fear of taking action/fear of inaction.”


In the United Kingdom, eleven psychology professors from multiple universities collaborated on a study in April as part of an ongoing survey of more than 40,000 households. They compared changes in the mental health of the adult population before and during the lockdown. Their main findings, published in The Lancet, concluded that “By late April 2020, mental health in the UK had deteriorated compared with pre-COVID-19 trends. Mental distress rose from 18.9 percent in 2018–19 to 27.3 percent in April 2020, one month into UK lockdown.” Another study by the Elsevier Public Health Emergency Collection revealed that the pandemic has resulted in high rates of anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychological distress, and stress in China, Spain, Italy, Iran, the US, Turkey, Nepal, and Denmark.


Our analysis of 27 million profiles on Facebook and Twitter gave us crucial insights on how fear has manifested online in the United Kingdom during the pandemic.


The Axes of Fear


At the heart of our findings is that the pandemic has knocked away the main human coping mechanisms, such as faith in society and the self, and puts a spotlight on overwhelming primal fears that usually lay hidden. It is interesting to see how these fears translate into consumer behavior. Even more intriguing is the discovery that behavior skews have a regional bias.


From examining social media posts, two dominant outlooks (optimistic and pessimistic) and two behaviors (active and passive) emerged. Plotted on a mathematical graph along the x and y axes, people broadly fell into four segments.


Directions of Dread


Of the entire country, Londoners were the most gung-ho and fell into the optimistic-active segment. They stayed purpose-driven through self-care, exercise, and diet, creative through DIY and home tutorials, and altruistic through volunteering. They were also mildly indulgent with buys that mostly tied into the other attributes. They turned to brands such as The Body Shop, Brewdog, Benefit Cosmetics, Etsy, Baileys, and Rococo Chocolates.

The optimistic-passive group was mostly upbeat but sought solace in reliving happy memories, national pride and symbols, and escaping into nature. This behavior pattern was primarily seen in the Midlands. Popular social media posts included pictures of past gatherings, meals, pub quizzes, nature sojourns, and moving away from performative rituals like makeup. These attributes were reflected in the brands they patronized: mass market and easily accessible ones such as Cadbury, Dove, Lipton, Coca Cola, McVitie’s, Walkers, and Ben & Jerry’s.

Of the four categories, pessimistic-active people were the only type without a geographic skew and appeared to be slightly neurotic. Behavior patterns veered towards panic buying and a penchant for conspiracy theories. 5G towers and the government were held responsible for the virus, while unseen hordes of “greedy” people received a tongue-lashing for emptying supermarket shelves. Brands favored by this set were those considered pragmatic and value for money, such as Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Whole Foods, Home Bargains, Uber, and Poundland.

Pessimistic-passive people tended to be located in the North and the Midlands. They were most prone to escapism from the bleakness, taking refuge in media, drawing comfort from religion, and holding the government in deep distrust. The most obvious manifestation was passive media consumption; even with this, choices swung heavily towards sci-fi and fantasy, further bolstering the segment’s escapism reading. Top brands included streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and YouTube, news sites like BBC and CNN, tech sites like Microsoft and Sony, and gaming platforms like Nintendo and Playstation.


The Road Ahead


The findings, while illuminating, also point to possible solutions. The one big takeaway is the need to think through fear, even as everything fundamental appears to have vanished. The self, reality, and future all seem desolate.


In a culture that celebrates individuality and expression of a self, the loss of agency and autonomy hits hard. People are realizing that they are no longer the master of their fate, giving rise to a crisis of self-identity that was built upon the idea of personal agency. They need to rediscover themselves by making time for self-love, taking a break, and building a new normal.


This period is also fueled by a strong sense of uncertainty leading to bouts of panic and depression. This can be countered by charting a new future through hope and safety steps. Further, in light of contradicting scientific facts, fake news, and delayed action from governing bodies, there is also a feeling of doubt, anger, and confusion. Acknowledging the tough times and community bonding can help people better deal with the current crisis.


WHO asserts: “Faced with new realities of working from home, temporary unemployment, home-schooling of children, and lack of physical contact with other family members, friends, and colleagues, it is important that we look after our mental, as well as our physical health.”


Write to us at [email protected] to learn more about our study. Watch this space for our mental health webinar.


Related reading:

Beating the Mental Health Crisis How are cities across the world experiencing joy in COVID19 times?

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