The fast spread of the coronavirus not only contaminates our immune systems but also triggers destructive psychological impulses across the world.
For many people around the world, rising death tolls caused by a contagion like the coronavirus appear to be prophetic, indicating the coming of an apocalyptic time.
Holy books have long revealed that when human sins exceed limits, the end of the world is near. Contrary to that thought, various conspiracy theories have speculated that some clandestine organisations are planning to destroy a large part of humanity to fulfill their own 'evil designs'. Both extremes have influenced human psychology across the world, and psychoanalysts argue that when pandemics occur, such beliefs begin to alter peoples' decisions.
“There have always been such apocalyptic scenarios we fear so much. Like an unknown virus will emerge and destroy the world. There have been movies about that,” Ayla Yazici, one of Turkey’s most prominent psychoanalysts, who is also a member of the International Psychoanalytical Association, told TRT World.
Such dire scenarios tend to blur the power of human reasoning. With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the world is experiencing panic and nervousness and many people are losing their grip on reality, while processing and abiding by governments’ calls to practice social distancing so as to combat the spread of the viral disease. However, such measures against the outbreak also transmit feelings of distrust.
“The virus as an external deadly force has limited our mobility whether be a nation's or an individual's, suddenly rendering everyone homebound,” Yazici said, referring to the change to people’s daily routines ranging from work to shopping to social gatherings and outdoor activities.
The change, according to Yazici, is consequential, which not only has a negative impact on both the global economy and politics, but also on human psychology — and that could be worse.
“Every conversation in the world has come down to how to clean our shoes or how many hours we should leave plastic bags outside before we bring them inside and etc,” Yazici said, referring to the overwhelming fear people have of the coronavirus.
“We all do this in an attempt of obsessive control because there is a disaster outside [out of our control]. It’s a matter of life and death. There is an inevitable message of death.”
Coronavirus paranoia outbreak
Steven Taylor, a professor and clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, Canada, emphasised the importance of psychological factors “for understanding and managing societal problems associated with pandemics, such as factors involved in the spreading of excessive fear”.
In his book, The Psychology of Pandemics, which was published in 2019, Taylor wrote: “Psychological factors are also important for understanding and managing the potentially disruptive or maladaptive defensive reactions such as increases in stigmatisation and xenophobia that occur when people are threatened with infection”.
Yazici is in complete agreement with Taylor's views on pandemics. “We all have become paranoid or mad. Think about paranoid fantasies [an unreasonable feeling that people are trying to harm you] and people, who have extreme suspicions of others and external forces. Now [in the wake of the coronavirus epidemic], their suspicions have appeared to come true,” Yazici said.
Yazici's analysis sits well in light of various untoward incidents reported across Turkey and other countries in the last few weeks.
This reporter witnessed two separate incidents on Wednesday that reflected extreme suspicion amongst people. The reporter and his wife were out for grocery shopping in Istanbul's Umraniye district. The owner of the grocery store came across worried and depressed, a trait that doesn't suit his otherwise happy-looking demeanor, and he suddenly turned to this reporter, saying: "It's too bad."
First it seemed like he was talking about business going down due to the coronavirus disruption. But later he emphasised that he's more worried about his health than losing money.
“Forget about customers. I don’t want to step out at all,” he said.
Ten minutes later, at another shopping centre, a middle-aged woman yelled at an elderly woman, who was accompanied by her disabled daughter, for stepping out as the government has advised people older than 60 years to stay indoors and observe a civil curfew.
"Don't step outside. You are putting everyone's life in danger," the woman said in a loud voice while addressing the older woman in the shop.
A few minutes later, a feeling of regret hit the middle aged woman as she began rationalising her rude behaviour to her young daughter who must have been aged between three and five years old. “Isn't it too bad for her to be here?” she asked her little daughter, seemingly trying to justify her anger at the elderly shopper.
For psychoanalyst Yazici, the behaviour of both the grocery store owner and middle-aged woman could qualify as borderline cases of "psychosis or delirium".
"If there were more diagnostic criteria, we would call it schizophrenia,” Yazici said, recalling her time at Istanbul’s famed Bakirkoy mental hospital, where she treated mentally ill patients for several years. The hospital is among Turkey's psychiatric institutions.
With the coronavirus outbreak, she said, the whole world has started to show symptoms of borderline psychosis and delirium.
Explaining the overwhelming fear of the coronavirus across the world in comprehensive terms of psychology, she said the pandemic has also affected her mobility as she prefers meeting her patients online. One-third of her lungs do not function, putting her in the high risk category.
Uncertainty over the borders of reality
Humans usually live their lives by suppressing their psychotic side, Yazici says, adding that when certain disappointments occur or sickness creeps in, this psychotic side begins accelerating with paranoia.
“Someone begins suspecting about her/his lover, if she/he does not act close to him/her. He/she starts thinking that the lover might deceive him/her with someone else. But when the lover calls him/her in an hour, he/she recovers to his/her healthy psychology by suppressing her/his suspicions that everything is in fact good,” Yazici explains.
Yazici finds parallels between regular suspicions like the lover example above and the current virus suspicions.
“In such cases where we feel the pressure of the external world [like we feel now regarding the virus threat], our paranoid materials in our unconscious become evident,” Yazici says.
But like the lover situation, who could call us saying that the virus is gone to calm us?
Now almost every government advises its citizens not to go outside because there is a deadly virus looming large to kill people, preventing a psychological suppression process to take place.
While these fears increase anxieties across countries, some citizens still go outside anyway, suppressing their virus fears believing that nothing will happen to them, Yazici observes.
“In this kind of situation, we are losing the borders of reality. Not to know the borders of reality make our lives desperate, fueling our most primitive feelings about life.”
But the social system and the state, which want to stabilise the situation at all costs, establishes rules ranging from lockdowns to curfews to determine the borders of reality for people, Yazici says.
To overcome the fears of virus
The need of the hour is to protect our connection with reality, Yazici says, adding that humans should not allow paranoia to possess them, despite the fact that "we still need some essential fears to deal with real dangers outside".
"We need to find a balancing act between essential fears and paranoid anxieties,” the psychiatrist says.
She also underlines the fact that now every member of the family has to stay at home almost the entire time, making domestic clashes more possible.
Many couples have been divorcing in China’s Wuhan, where the virus originated, according to various reports.
“The most important thing is now to keep our connection with reality alive to prevent such conflicting cases. What’s crucial now is to understand our partner, placating her/his fears,” Yazici says.
“If we are able to find a way to calm this primitive fear, I think we can also find ways to get along with each other,” she concludes.