Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic the only way I know how--with a behavioral approach

So it’s been a while since my last blog. The Covid-19 pandemic certainly disrupted a lot of our plans. The lockdown compelled us to stay at home, inducing us to stick to the only windows left to view the outside world—television and the internet/social media.

We have to appreciate all the medical front-liners and essential service people for helping us ride out this storm. All we have to do, really, is sit back, collect ourselves and ponder.

The past few weeks have certainly affected our sanity. Who wouldn’t be petrified with the current events? We still don’t know what the future holds for us. Lots of elements in this crisis remain uncertain, We don’t know how long will this lockdown would continue, or when would this virus wither and die. The vaccines are over a year away. Mass testing remains slow on the uptake.

We could be facing recession worse than the 2008-2009 crisis, with some experts projecting an equivalent of the Depression of the 1930s. We are indeed facing a crisis nearly on par with the war faced by our grandparents.

More than that, because this pandemic has thrown us into the dark, we are induced to feed on updates incrementally, inducing us to check the news from time to time. Oftentimes, the updates come in real-time. So we find ourselves consuming as much information as we can.

In an ideal world, this is a good thing. The more we know, the better as long as the credibility of our news source bears no malice or agenda. The problem is that we live in an information age that does not necessarily translate to truth and accuracy. Some media outlets even exist solely to create discord and lies—to disrupt and divide.

In other words, as much as I am concerned with the pandemic, I’m just as concerned with the consequences of our increased exposure to unfiltered media, especially when we have nothing else to do but keep tabs on current events. Unless, we are consistently vigilant on what we consume from our television screens, laptops, and mobiles, we could contract another disease that can have an adverse impact on our mental health.

In this front, we’re facing another epidemic. If you’ve been immersed to social media for some time now, you know that the internet is also rife with an epidemic of its own. The social media is a hot soup of highly contagious sickness emanating from trollers, bullies, hate speeches, dissidents and rabid fans/supporters, ideologues, etc.

What would be the negative effect on our behavior if we maintain this information consumption, I wonder.

Although we understand the need to get information and updates about the pandemic, our ability to search for more can lead to information gluttony.

It starts innocently enough: one moment you are reading today’s highlights; suddenly, you find something that strikes you emotionally, or something disturbed you (which probably made you angry), you expand your search, you read more news, you dig for more, then you find sources that support your views, you find solace in an echo chamber and your interest on the matter peaks. Then you find dissidents in an internet 2.0 platform. You start by pitching-in ideas to create a debate. Suddenly, they respond viciously, appending it with an insult. You retaliate in kind. A silent, electronic hostility between comments and quips ensues, inviting trollers and bullies and rabid fans into the fray. The discourse had descended into madness.

There, I just described a typical war on Twitter.

Notice that the news that you read in social media today are flashed in a headline, so meticulously composed. with the aim of doing more than catch your attention, but tug your heartstrings and switch-on your impulsivity. In social media parlance, they are called Click Baits. Most head-turning headlines want to hold captive readers just to lead them into a rabbit hole.

If you are not careful, particularly in this critical time, you might be amusing yourself to anxiety.

So I want to emphasize two dangerous emotions that result in our overindulgence to information, especially when it comes to the current pandemic:

Depression and mania.

I believe these two emotions have their purposes. They are essentially the body’s defense mechanisms against perceived threats. However, they pose more disadvantages to our well-being if it goes into overdrive.

The depression and mania you may have felt during this pandemic are generally related to how and where you initially consumed information (and disinformation) about the virus.

When I read too much on the gloom and doom that the coronavirus had wrought, I had exposed myself to unnecessary fear. I was a wreck at home, nearly hopeless and often bitter. Certainly, if I maintained a diet of watching only the highlights of the day and not expose myself to bleak news and politicizing, I would’ve felt better.

Just looking at the rising number of infected people around the world has certainly pushed our panic buttons. This is exacerbated by the fact that we have very little understanding of coronavirus. But we have to pull ourselves together to survive this storm. If we give in to fear, we will retreat into our homes depressed, stressed-out, and perhaps, pulling with us all the other negative behavior that comes with it.

On the other end is mania. Mania is also a dangerous thing to behold because it makes us do stupid things. For example, people who merely looked at the low mortality rate of the coronavirus gave them a sense of complacency and near-reckless abandon. Just read about the spring-breakers in Florida a few weeks ago. They are proof of what experts have been saving since the beginning of the outbreak: that we are more likely to catch coronavirus when we dismiss it out of hand because chances are, you start putting your guard down, you won’t practice social distancing, won’t wash your hands often, and won’t wear a mask in public.

The best response to this pandemic can be taken from how the French President, Emmanuel Macron, framed it on national television that “we are at war” against the virus.

Technically, if we are at war, then we must all carry on like soldiers in this fight. Yes, staying at home may be a poor metaphor for a soldier. What I mean is that we should behave like professionals. From a behavioral perspective, being a professional is neither fearful or over-excited, but is marked by calmness and composure.

To soldiers, fear and mania are considered systematic failures of behavior. Soldiers who panic during a gunfight often become the casualty of war; while soldiers who become over-eager to engage the enemy often find themselves first on the cross-hairs of snipers. The calm and collected ones tend to assess the battlefield first, plan, strategize, and move-on to their posts—as if positioning their chess pieces—before they strike.

In the same fashion, if we are soldiers in this fight, the manner from which we consume our information should be marked by professionalism too. In this way, we research news and updates with due diligence to its credibility and reliability. We consume news that is only necessary for our well-being.  Nothing more, nothing less. We don’t overindulge. We don’t politicize. We don’t engage with debates. Now is not that time.

Indeed, the coronavirus pandemic is a healthcare/economic crisis. But if we’re not careful with our social media consumption or our TV news diet, this can very well be a behavioral and mental health crisis too.

Now is the time to sit back, relax, recharge, and let the front-liners do their thing, and hope for the best.

This is the way we preserve our sanity and everyone’s safety. We must.

 

Theodore Marc Gutierrez is a Registered Financial Planner (RFP), freelance writer, speaker, and researcher specializing in behavioral finance. Next to writing, he designs old school card/board games as a hobby. He published his first book, Astronomer's Tales, in 2007.