The coronavirus pandemic has become an undeniable fact of life; but is the media creating a false sense of panic while trying to warn people to stick to healthy routines?
The coronavirus scare started in Wuhan, China in December 2019, but medical authorities did not realise the full scope of its impact in the coming weeks.
Ever since the World Health Organization declared the Covid-19 virus a pandemic, millions of people around the world have been keeping up with the news with bated breath, with as many as possible self-quarantining themselves at home.
While it is estimated that 60 to 80 percent of the world population will encounter the coronavirus at some point, states have taken measures to “flatten the curve” so that the illnesses don’t all happen at once and health care facilities and medical personnel are not overwhelmed.
In the meantime, the news media have been pumping out reports of fatalities and narrating stories of gravely ill people who may never recover. A recent article in New York Magazine, for example, titled “How the Coronavirus Could Take Over Your Body (Before You Ever Feel It)” tells the hypothetical, yet gruesome tale of infection, hospitalisation, and ––spoiler alert–– death.
Such reports have caused a panic verging on mass hysteria in the public, as seen in supermarket lines, with people bulk buying toilet paper, stocking up on frozen food and hoarding canned goods.
Social media does not help, with misinformation and fake news circulating alongside sensible advice and articles.
TRT World has talked to Prof Dr Tamer Aker of Istanbul Bilgi University’s Trauma and Disaster Mental Health programme. Dr Aker says the fear and anxiety experienced by the public is a positive thing.
“First of all, pandemics such as Covid-19 increase the sense of uncertainty and insecurity in people,” he says. “Such reactions are among those that keep humankind alive. Fear and anxiety are vital for us to keep the species going.”
Dr Aker adds that during such uncertain times, nothing is more natural than feelings of fear and anxiety. He emphasises that “What’s important is that we experience a sense of control over the feelings of fear and anxiety.”
Dr Aker is quick to point out that by “experiencing a sense of control” he doesn’t mean suppressing one’s feelings of anxiety or becoming a shut-in due to fear of contracting or spreading the virus. “These feelings should be able to be shared within the family,” he says. “Parents should talk to their children, play games with them, paint and draw, read, and turn fear and anxiety into ordinary feelings.” He recommends the film “Inside Out” that explores basic emotions in animated form.
As for media consumption, according to Dr Aker, moderation is key. He says that for people to experience a sense of control over their own destiny, or the destiny of their loved ones, they should expose themselves to trustworthy news sources such as the World Health Organization and the ministry of health. “Once people gather and process enough reliable information from trusted sources,” Dr Aker says, “they should limit their exposure to media, especially alarmist media.” Constant exposure to media could heighten fear and anxiety in individuals and Dr Aker sees no upside to it.
Dr Aker recommends taking walks outside, taking outdoor physical exercise, and maybe even going as far as meeting up with a neighbour while keeping to social distancing guidelines and taking a stroll together before getting the morning paper.
“We used to recommend being social after big disasters,” Dr Aker says. “We still recommend socialising [during the coronavirus pandemic], but not physically anymore.” Having a strong social network and keeping up with friends, family and loved ones will keep people stronger, he believes. And social media could be used beneficially for this purpose, he says.
“People’s networks should include friends, as well as community leaders and important institutions. For example museums, artists, scientists, book and magazine publishers are sharing their content for free online. These too can be taken into consideration. We are not alone, bearing the burden by ourselves. To get over the effects of the pandemic [on the collective psyche], contact, while not physical, is necessary,” Dr Aker explains.
He says that people’s fearful questions such as “When will we die? When will we fall ill with the virus?” are not reflective of reality, but that reality doesn’t mean that there is life without fear.
Dr Aker points out the silver lining in the coronavirus pandemic. “Maybe from now on, we will be more careful with our interactions with the [more at risk] elderly,” he says. “We will wash our hands before we interact with them, and help with their grocery shopping.”
He thinks that the pandemic has made us into better citizens who will take on responsibility not only for ourselves, but for the more vulnerable amongst us.
Assoc Prof Banu Kavakli Birdal of Altinbas University’s department of sociology agrees with Dr Aker saying she hopes the pandemic will turn us into more responsible citizens. Kavakli says that because of coronavirus, people have become more empathetic towards high-risk groups such as the elderly.
“The anxiety surrounding the coronavirus is not unfounded,” Kavakli says, “because we’ve seen how serious the results can be; with all these people getting sick and dying.”
“People turn to television and online media in a time of crisis like this,” she adds. “And I’m not saying that online media is more reliable all the time, but it can offer a more in-depth analysis of the situation.”
Kavakli warns that getting to what she calls ‘clean information’ is not always easy. “Yet,” she says, “when TV channels present top officials talking about the gravity of the situation, people take it seriously.” She also thinks that online sources can be a great help, as long as people turn to reliable channels of information.
Kavakli says videos are circulating in social media claiming the virus is a hoax trying to distance communities, or that it is an attack on a certain group of people. She adds that there are also people who mistakenly believe that nothing will happen to them and that the whole pandemic is exaggerated. She also has seen fake news about sick patients having died while they are still fighting the disease.
“Without ‘clean information’”, Kavakli points out, “there can be disproportionate reactions such as hoarding, or people excluding some groups.” She adds that while getting to ‘clean information’ may not always be an easy task, people should try their best to be informed citizens.