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The psychology behind our heightened response after Northland Covid-19 case

The most recent Covid-19 community case involving a Northland woman who contracted the virus while in managed isolation has elicited a number of reactions from people. 

Clinical psychologist Dr Sarb Johal. Source: Supplied

One reaction was an uptake in QR code scanning and Bluetooth users. Others rushed to the supermarket, anxious about a potential alert level change. 

“There is absolutely no need to panic about anything … you can still go to the supermarket in the event that any restrictions were put in place,” Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said in response. 

But what drives this behaviour, and how can it be managed? 

1 NEWS spoke to clinical psychologist and author of Steady: Keeping calm in a world gone viral Dr Sarb Johal to examine the phenomena. 

Covid Tracer app (file photo). Source: Seven Sharp

Why the rush to the supermarket?

Johal said people’s brains have a “threat management system”, and the Northland case served as a “sit up and pay attention” moment. 

“What our brains do, they say, ‘You survived this last time, just do the thing that you did last time, and then you'll be okay.’”

So, despite knowing supermarkets would remain open at any alert level, people could still be behaving as if this wasn’t the experience during last year’s lockdown, he said. 

“It's not the rational part of your brain that's responding. It's the emotional part of your brain that's responding. It's the threat part of your brain,” he said. 

“The threat activation part of your brain is trying to keep you alive because it takes it as a serious threat. So, your brain tends to err on the side of caution and does the thing that’s most likely to keep you alive. 

“For some people, it might be lashing out. They might be quite angry and say, ‘Well, hang on, how did we get this position? I was supposed to have a nice, quiet summer, I've done the work, this is the benefit.’

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Two days after news of the infection there’s still an air of tension. Source: 1 NEWS

“Other people will say, ‘I probably need to go and get some stuff which I’ve been running down.’”

When people are under threat, they are very sensitive to social cues, Johal said. So, if people see others panic buying, they will consider it too. 

Johal suggested deep breathing to calm down and help to activate the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for planning and creative problem solving. 

Once this part of the brain was turned on, people could then draw from their previous experiences to come to more measured conclusions, he said. 

“When you're in threat mode, all of that gets switched off. And you just do the instinctive stuff to keep you alive.”

Covid-19 vigilance goes on, off, then back on again

The Ministry of Health on Monday said there was a “notable increase” in QR code scans in the 24 hours after they had announced the case of the Northland woman.

But, while Covid Tracer app usage spiked during that time, Ministry of Health figures analysed by 1 NEWS revealed most app users weren’t scanning every day during the summer despite repeated pleas from health officials.

Because it was difficult to constantly remain on high alert even when asked, though, the conversation wasn’t necessarily about complacency, Johal said.

Instead, it was about establishing habits and creating ways to “give people permission” to act in ways that would help public health measures, like scanning QR codes.

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The grim reality behind New Zealand's low Covid Tracer app numbers

“When you're trying to do the COVID Tracer app, if you feel like you're the only person doing it, then that can actually be quite intimidating. It can actually stop you from doing it because you don’t want to be the odd one out,” he said.

“When lots of people are scanning all around you, then it feels like it's giving you permission to go ahead and do the scanning yourself, particularly if there were lots of scan points that are available because you’re not queuing up and feeling awkward.”

So how do you get people into the habit of scanning to get that ball rolling?

Johal said it was about “buying into” an “identity” of being a QR code scanner.

“Once you make the identity switch, then you act in a way that's in line with your behaviour rather than [doing] something that you have to think about all the time.”

The message of scanning QR codes shouldn’t just come from the Government, either. It should come from building a sense of community from the ground up as well, Johal added.

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Health officials are again calling for a “scanning culture” to give them a head start on any outbreak. Source: 1 NEWS

“It's about building a social movement … doing things like spreading hashtags on social media.

“It sounds quite trite or meaningless, but it feels like you are now part of a group of people going through a journey together.”

Johal said people needed to “automate the behaviours” like hand-washing and QR code-scanning to help prevent pandemic fatigue.

He likened people’s ideal response to Covid-19 to that of cricket batters who are taught how to turn their attention on and off so they can play for days.

“As the bowler approaches, they're paying very, very close attention until they play their shot. Then they go wandering off while the ball is retrieved.

“They’re actually switching their attention off completely. And then they bring it back into the forefront of their mind and they start attending to the next delivery,” Johal said.

“I think that there is [pandemic] fatigue. So, it becomes even more important that we become really intentional about how we switch ourselves out of that threat mode and are able to still hold our attention and our calmness.”

Mental health services should prepare for a potential influx 

The long-term effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on people’s mental state wasn’t yet clear, Johal said. But, the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes on stress and how people in flood-prone areas lived were two places that could provide some clues.

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Richie Poulton says NZ has done well to rid the nation of a physical threat from the virus, but that "the hard stuff is really coming". Source: Breakfast

“It became clear in the evidence and also the Canterbury earthquake recovery is that, sometimes, it’s the policies that we have to live by that then becomes something that is a bit of a stress in and of itself.

“So, actually, the secondary stressor. It's not the pandemic, but it's actually having to live apart from the rest of the world for a while.”

The economic recovery after the pandemic could also be a stressor, he said. 

Johal said for people who lived in areas where they face repeated and extended threats from floods, “when it rains, people who’ve been subjected to flooding previously have all kinds of mental health challenges that start coming to them even though the rain may not appear that serious”. 

“That’s something we need to be mindful of, as we continue our pandemic journey, is that some people may react in ways that feel a little bit out of proportion to what's actually going on. But it's actually understandable given what the possible threat might be.” 

Evidence over decades of research showed an estimated 15 to 20 per cent of people may then end up needing mental health services, Johal added.

“We need to have systems and services in place to assist people when they react in ways that are perfectly understandable and predictable from what we understand from disasters previously.”