Denial, fear, shock and anger: How the public is reacting to coronavirus

The public’s reaction to the coronavirus pandemic is similar to the stages of grief – with some people still in denial about the huge implications of what is to come, an expert has said.

Some will be in shock as they come to terms with the reality of the UK lockdown, while others feel anger towards people they have described as their “idiot” peers who flouted social distancing rules, according to Dr Rebecca Semmens-Wheeler.

The senior lecturer in psychology said people like life to be “stable and predictable”, but are now in an overwhelming and uncertain situation where they are experiencing a loss of control.

Reflecting on how the public is reacting to the crisis, she told the PA news agency: “I think fear could be something. People tend to go into the stages of grief. You have fear and denial.

“So people tend to deny things and it’s almost a way of deferring dealing with it, so actually putting off accepting that this is the reality because they’re afraid of the implications.”

Dr Semmens-Wheeler, who is based at Birmingham City University, added: “It’s almost like we keep doing things as normally as possible as we begin to accept what’s happening, because it’s quite overwhelming, and there’s a lot of uncertainty, and uncertainty is difficult for most of us.

“I think that many of us want to have a sense of control and when we don’t have that we can feel very unsafe, and so we can become numb to it as though it’s not real.”

She said she has noticed “quarantine shaming” on social media and people using the word “idiot” in relation to those not following social distancing advice.

“I see that as the anger stage. People are angry. They’re angry at others,” she said.

Dr Semmens-Wheeler said she does not think people have reached acceptance of how grave the situation is, and suggested one of the reasons could be what she described as a “lack of clarity”.

She said: “The situation is very fluid. As human beings we don’t like that fluidity. We like things to be stable and predictable, because that helps to give us a sense of control over our surroundings.”

Talking about the change to people’s lives, the lecturer said: “I think we’re having to shift to a different mode of being, not just working from home, but emotionally, cognitively, socially we’re shifting to a different mode of being.”

Dr Semmens-Wheeler said people may feel they have reached acceptance but then suffer setbacks.

“You might feel one day that actually you’ve got to a point of acceptance, and then something else happens like you were supposed to get married on this day and that’s not going to happen anymore and then you go back to feeling anger again.

“Or denial, and just feeling numb and just shutting down. So we can move back and forth through these stages as well.

“So, acceptance, it can almost be like a spiral that you keep covering the same ground but maybe you get a bit closer to acceptance each time,” she said.

The psychology expert said people struggle with the notion of “short term pain for long term gain” due to the nature of today’s society.

“We’re used to instant gratification,” she said. “We’re used to lots of novel stimuli and getting what we want instantly, and getting that gratification, and the brain craves it.

“It actually learns to crave that.”

She said people are not accustomed to deferring or delaying gratification nowadays, adding: “It takes a huge amount of self control to do that.”

Dr Semmens-Wheeler also pointed out that the UK is an “individualistic society”, adding: “I think we’re starting to collectivise a lot more now.

“But if you look at countries like Korea and China that are much more collectivist, that happened much more quickly with them, whereas in the UK and the US we’re very individualistic so people are thinking ‘Well I can just sanitise my hands, I can take the measures I need to control my own behaviour’.”

She said it will be “bloody hard” but that people will eventually have to surrender to the fact that their lifestyle and habits must change for the time being.

“We need to cultivate more of an attitude of surrender, and that’s extremely difficult. It’s a kind of spiritual practice, surrendering to what’s going to happen. It’s bloody hard,” she said.

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