Psychology of why COVID19 didn’t create fear


The definition of Fear is highly subjective. When COVID19 virus began to spread in the late 2019 originating from China, the world couldn’t care less and life was normal around the globe. A pandemic was declared and the freedom of movement was curbed, for passengers to fly strict S.O.P. was put in place. Soon, people began to take the S.O.P. casually, drop their masks, disregard social distancing while traveling as they couldn’t see the effects of the virus and refused to take the vaccines. Passengers began to defy the curbs and a second wave hit a few nations where people began see death up close. This is the stage when fear set in. The question arises, why didn’t fear set in the first time when it was evident that the virus will take its toll?

 To understand this, we need to define fear. Fear is a subjective in nature and every person will define it a bit differently depending upon the perception. One of the definition is “Fear is the natural, and therefore reasonable, response to danger.” If this definition is correct, fear should then be proportional to the knowledge of the danger, to a realization of the risks involved. Who knows so well as the nurses and doctors the dangers of contagious infections? Is the fireman afraid of the fire or the army man afraid of the sound of a burst of bullets? The infection, fire and bullets are all dangerous. Therefore it can be said that the feat is not proportionate to the the actual risk of injury.

London bombings

Fear of bombs

When the World War was in full swing and there was a threat of London being bombed. When the sirens were first sounded there was little panic and people scurried to their bomb shelters with little confidence of seeing the daylight again. A number of times when the sirens sounded , no bombs dropped. Soon people bean to be adventurous and came out of the shelters to see what’s happening around and were later joined by more people. 
What was the explanation of this? The intelligent layman would say: “Oh, it’s just a case of Wolf, Wolf”. The psychologists would explain it as the extinction of the conditioned reaction. There are other adages like “Out of site, out of mind”. The ostrich philosophy grew and all caution was disregarded.

Fear groups

Soon the bombs started falling for real. When the bomb exploded in a congested area, it divided the population who can hear it or see its effects into three groups.

  1. Those who are killed. The morale of the community depends on the reaction of the survivors, the killed do not matter.The survivors are divided into the near miss and remote miss.
  2. The near misses are the people who are in immediate vicinity of the bomb, they feel the blast, they see the destruction and are horrified by the death and carnage. In this category, there are people who think, “The next one will get me” or ” Will the next one get me?”.
  3. In contrast, the remote miss group can hear the siren, they hear the enemy plane, explosion. There is tense waiting, will they come nearer? They don’t and the siren for all clear sounds. The survivors think that it has happened and I am safe. Then there is curiosity as what has happened, eager question and speculation. Often there is visit to the scene of destruction. Frequently, the damage is found to be little. In this case the old fear the all bombs will find their mark is dissipated.they don’t get to see the bodies or large scale damage.

As the bombings continued, the people of London became resilient. One English psychiatrist wrote that as bomb sirens were alarmed, “Small boys continued to play all over the pavements, shoppers went on haggling, a policeman directed traffic in majestic boredom and the bicyclists defied death and the traffic laws. No one, as far as I could see, even looked into the sky.
Malcom Gladwell, in “David & Goliath” asks the question, “why we’re Londoners so unfazed by the blitz.” The answer is that when thousands of deaths are spread out across 8 million people, there are far more remote misses than there are near misses and direct hits.

As MacCurdy in “Structure of morale” puts it, “We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration.” After such events as a bombing are over, “the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.”

COVID19 fear

The fear of COVID19 followed similar pattern. When the pandemic was declared, there was fear amongst people that they might contract the infection and meet the fate, that of the people of Wuhan in China. Soon they realized that they do hear about people getting infected and deaths but they haven’t seen it in their vicinity. They began to lower their guards and venture out without taking precautions of wearing the mask properly and/or washing hands. Their confidence grew so much that they began debating on whether to take the vaccination or not. They didn’t realize that every person has the potential to carry and spread the virus and that the vaccination of each and every individual is the only answer. So, if it hasn’t happened to them or people know to them, it need not be feared.
The second wave hit hard since people didn’t take precautions and also refused to get vaccinated. Now every third person is infected with the virus and death is seen very closely. People known to them have died or survived to tell the horrific tales. The fear sets in that they could be next. The situation that they face is the health  infrastructure which was not built to handle a pandemic of this severity is beginning to weather away and there are shortages of essential drugs and oxygen. The vaccination too is in short supply and to ramp up the production it will take time.
MacCurdy writes that the borough that had been panicky and troublesome with its demands for deeper shelter to house the people, after the bombings sticks out its chest and says ” We are on the map now; we can take it”. The same phenomenon is in military. Troops that have never been under fire cannot be relied upon with confidence. But when they have a few casualties they are steadied and, interestingly enough, discipline improves.
It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

About Capt. Amit Singh

I think therefore I am Airlines Operations and Safety balance expert. A former head of operations/training and safety of successful LCC's in India. An experienced member of the startup teams of these airlines has hands-on experience in establishing airlines systems and processes.

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