When I wrote last week about how northern Idaho was surging with COVID cases, to the point that hospitals had triggered a plan to ration medical care, I got a slew of correspondence from people there saying: No we aren’t.
“We don’t have any outbreaks here,” one insisted. “I know a few people working in Kootenai Health, the largest hospital in the area, and they are not busy at all. They are actually overstaffed in the ER.”
Wrote another: “I am in Coeur d’Alene and serve hundreds of customers and I’ve heard of nobody that’s been hospitalized, or who has even got COVID. I am disgusted at the inaccuracy of your article.”
Said a third: “More fearmongering by the media about our so-called ‘pandemic.’”
I wrote back to these Idahoans, attaching an alert from Kootenai Health itself, the main hospital in their own town, Coeur d’Alene. It’s entitled “Kootenai Health implements crisis standards of care as COVID-19 cases soar.” It details how the hospital is so jammed it converted its conference room into an overflow field clinic for COVID patients.
One of the Idahoans wrote back, not to say he may have misjudged the situation, but to instead accuse the hospital of now being part of my conspiracy: “My initial thought on reading this is the hospital may be falsely reporting to get more COVID funding. I will dig into it.”
Is this normal? More than a year and a half into our pandemic odyssey, I find this ongoing behavior to be the most baffling part of the story — that there remains a group of citizens, not sure how large, who refuse to acknowledge that a major health event is even happening. Or if it is, that it’s a big deal.
We’re approaching 700,000 dead in the U.S., and yet every day I still get feedback from readers who insist it’s all overblown. Or that it’s no worse than the flu. (I long ago stopped responding to the flu comparison people, but if I did, I would note that it takes 20 years for the flu to kill this many people.)
This past week, the entire state of Idaho has moved to crisis standards of care, in which resources are stretched so thin that patients may be treated based on who has the best chances of survival. Still, that news, which seems alarming enough to me, isn’t necessarily getting through. I’ve noticed that hospitals increasingly are inviting reporters directly into the ICU wards, in a maddening bid to try to convince the public, after all these months, that the pandemic even exists.
But it turns out this denial behavior is not only normal, it was totally foreseeable, according to Steven Taylor, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C.
Taylor would know because he predicted it. He wrote a remarkable little book back in 2019 called “The Psychology of Pandemics.” Its premise is that pandemics are “not simply events in which some harmful microbe ‘goes viral,’” but rather are mass psychological phenomena about the behaviors, attitudes and emotions of people.
The book came out pre-COVID and yet predicts every trend and trope we’ve been living for 19 months now: the hoarding of supplies like toilet paper at the start; the rapid spread of “unfounded rumors and fake news”; the backlash against masks and vaccines; the rise and acceptance of conspiracy theories; and the division of society into people who “dutifully conform to the advice of health authorities” — sometimes compulsively so — and those who “engage in seemingly self-defeating behaviors such as refusing to get vaccinated.”
He has no crystal ball, he says, it’s just that all of this has happened before. A lot of people believed the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 was spread by the Germans through Bayer aspirin. It’s all based on basic psychology as to how people react to health emergencies.
The denialists and refuseniks today are engaging in what the psychology field calls “psychological reactance.” It’s “a motivational response to rules, regulations, or attempts at persuasion that are perceived as threatening one’s autonomy and freedom of choice,” the book describes. Think what happens when someone says “Eat your broccoli.”
Following onto that is what psychologists term “motivated reasoning.” That’s when people stick with their story even if the facts obviously are contrary to it, as a form of “comforting delusion,” Taylor says. The book covers “unrealistic optimism bias,” in which people in pandemics are prone to convincing themselves that it can’t or won’t happen to them.
The book also gets into “monitoring versus blunting.” Monitoring is when you dive deeply into the details of a health threat, sometimes obsessively (raise your hand if you’ve checked the COVID case and death counts 10 times in a day). Blunting is avoidance, setting the bad news off to the side or pretending it isn’t happening at all.
“Pandemics bring out all these extremes in behavior,” Taylor told me. “Anxiety, fear, denial, racism, conspiracy theories, the popularity of quack cures, the ‘you’re not the boss of me’ backlash to health directives — these things have all been seen dating back to the medieval plagues.”
Even the screaming at school boards? Surely that can’t be normal. But yes: Taylor notes there was an Anti-Mask League of San Francisco during the Spanish flu pandemic that held protests involving thousands.
This pandemic has probably been worse for behavioral extremes, despite all our modern advancements, Taylor said.
“It’s the first big pandemic in the era of social media, so the disinformation just spreads faster and wider,” he said. “Plus down there you had Donald Trump, who himself engaged in reality denial on a grand scale. I did not account for the possibility of political leadership like that in my book.”
Taylor had the fundamental insight that pandemics are first and foremost experienced socially, more so than they are medically. He wrote the book to try to ready folks for this, for when the next pandemic happened. That turned out to be only about a month after his book was published.
Still, one publisher warned him: “No one’s going to want to read it.”
Are we really this predictable? It seems it was baked into our natures, our essential variety, that we would get owned by any pandemic that came along. And probably will again.
I don’t know if this makes me feel better or worse. But as a monitoring person, not a blunter, at least I feel now like I sort of understand it.