Understanding and reducing the fear of Covid-19

It is normal to fear the unknown, especially if it affects our health, if we can’t see who has it, and if we are told it might be fatal.

Mar 14, 2020

By Prof Kwan Hoong Ng PhD and  Dr Ray Kemp PhD
The media has gone crazy over the outbreak of Covid-19. Is it mad to have done so?

It is normal to fear the unknown, especially if it affects our health, if we can’t see who has it, and if we are told it might be fatal.

And fear can be a positive force. We can respond to fear both rationally and irrationally. A rational response is to understand and manage the risks. An irrational but common response is to panic.

Irrational fears and panic are made worse by emotive language and “knee jerk” reactions. This is where the established press and media need to understand that in such circumstances, it has a responsibility not to inflame fears just to sell its stories or to attract more readers and viewers. As a major force in civil society, it has a responsibility to inform in a measured and accurate manner.  This is even more important today when social media follows no such limitations and will pick up and amplify any frightening stories without constraint.

Following the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Power Plant accident in Japan, social media became a force for good – helping people understand what was going on and supplementing with official statistics.

But with Covid-19 where the established media are using words such as ‘plague’ and ‘apocalypse’,  the effect is to heighten concerns and promote irrational fears.

What we know from years of research is that when there is heightened fear and anxiety, people’s ability to take in information from even trusted sources, such as the local and national health authorities and the World Health Organisation (WHO), is drastically reduced. Less than 10 per cent of the information provided will be understood.

In an interview on BBC Radio, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England pointed out that panic buying in the shops is not only unnecessary, but it also generates even more panic.

"Stigma can undermine social cohesion and prompt possible social isolation of groups, which might contribute to a situation where the virus is more, not less, likely to spread,” the WHO says.

In other words – and it is a shame that we have to provide a simpler interpretation – people should not be afraid or be  made to feel embarrassed about possibly having the virus. If you think you might be – get tested and if you have it, get treated. If you do not have it, treat people who do with sensitivity and simply encourage them to take the correct steps to get treated and get better. That way, wider society will be protected.

So how do we break this vicious circle? The challenge facing us all now is to reduce the fear and the panic, to allow people to “hear” the more sensible messages about Covid-19 and respond in a more measured way. We provide some simple advice for the Media:

1. Help to better inform people about COVID-19 so it is better understood and less scary.

2. Be much more careful with language, to break the vicious circle of fear, panic and stigmatisation of people who catch the virus. 3. Resist issuing constant “bulletins” and banner messages that appear every hour or more on our mobile phones which simply serve to raise anxiety and provide little that is new.

For the Health Authorities

4. Avoid bureaucratic language and keep the messages and language very simple.

5. Identify a Trusted spokesperson as the main source of information and let them speak in simple terms.

6. Remember that fear is a rational response to an unknown threat – and people who are scared don’t hear much of the  information you give them at first.

For the rest of us

7. Covid-19 is a form of ‘flu’ and the medical professionals are learning how best to treat it

8. Simple good hygiene – using tissues, washing hands, clean environments – is the best protection

9. Do not be embarrassed – if you need to, get tested and treated Sources of up-to-date, reliable and accurate information could be found in the following sites:

-- World Health Organisation https://www.who.int/emergencies/ diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019

-- National Health Service, UK https:// www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronaviruscovid-19/

-- US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention https://www.cdc.gov/ coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html

--For Malaysia, Ministry of Health http://www.moh.gov.my/index.php/ pages/view/2019-ncov-wuhan

-- https://t.me/sihatmilikbersama

(Prof Kwan Hoong Ng PhD, University of Malaya, Malaysia and Dr Ray Kemp PhD, Cambridge, United Kingdom. Both authors have years of experience in risk perception and communication.)

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