By Annisa Essack
No event in recent history has affected us as profoundly and pervasively as the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic represents a completely extraordinary situation, as unique as it is lifechanging.
It highlights our physical fragility whilst also undermining our economic security, wreaking havoc of our daily lives and plans, and isolating us from loved ones, friends and neighbours.
But as the pandemic unfolds, it highlights gradually the stressful external forces it has unleashed that are exerting a deep internal effect. Slowly, it changes who we are and how we relate to people and the world.
The pandemic affects our psyches by influencing how we think, how we relate to others and what we value.
This crisis has prompted wide-reaching uncertainty. The completely unfamiliar circumstances have left us not knowing what to think and how to move forward.
Will I be affected? How quickly? Will tests be available, and will I afford them? How long will this last? How will my work be affected and how will I manage without an income?
The combination of danger and uncertainty is a recipe that brings with its severe angst which feeds an intense desire for certainty. This is known as the need for cognitive closure. Once ignited, the need for closure fosters the craving for reliable information, clarity and guidance. The acute desire to be rid of the ambiguity that engulfs us.
As a generation of breaking news junkies, glued to our TV sets, we hope against hope that we will receive the elusive enlightenment.
Research on the need for closure shows that under conditions of prolonged uncertainty, people are drawn to simple solutions and black-and-white reasoning. Some will gravitate toward denial, others to utter panic with the belief that worst is to come and the ned is near. Rumours and misinformation begin to circulate and eagerly seized upon critically.
In times like this a steady, reassuring leadership is desperately needed, with the authoritative, confident direction being preferred over flexible, laissez-faire guidance. This is no time for complex deliberations.
With a rising need for closure, people become “group-centric”, meaning that they yearn for cohesion and unity. During this period, patriotism is elevated, so too is nationalism – the idea of superiority to others, being better at handling the crisis.
The current pandemic is scary. There are no exceptions as to who will be infected as no one is exempt, no matter your status, popularity, station in life or the amount of power you may yield.
It also evokes the possibility of an overriding sense of fragility and vulnerability. Research attests that as one’s feelings of control and personal agency are at an ebb, one’s dependence on others rises. This brings social relations to the fore, strengthening one’s attachment to others, increasing appreciation for loved ones, family and friends.
The pandemic brings with it a yearning for warmth and comfort in us, a realisation that we are reliant on others.
As we find ourselves growing more attached to others, we find that there is also a shift in our morals. Consideration and care, communal values of cooperation become important as individualistic ones of power, popularity and prestige are given less priority.
Even our cultural ideals change. During times of crisis, we salute and applaud those who serve communitarian values, extend a helping hand to others, sacrifice their self-interests for the common good, exhibit empathy and model humanity. And the fascination for riches and glory dims instead we begin to admire the simple acts of kindness.
This pandemic will alter who we are, and it will affect the many diverse facets of our psyche.
Whether we like it or not, the immense crisis we are facing brings out the best in us, but also the worst in us.