We must convey a realistic sense of pandemic uncertainty for people to adopt appropriate behaviour
News about patients flooding hospitals and crematoriums overfilled with the dead have once again raised the danger signals on covid. But we have many miles to go before we bring this pandemic under control. India has barely vaccinated 10% of its population so far. First we need to vaccinate the rest of the population. A few months later, all of them will have to be persuaded to take a second dose of the vaccine. If existing vaccines prove inadequate to deal with the constantly mutating virus, all these people will have to take booster shots. From past experience, we know that medical adherence—people completing the whole course of medication prescribed to them—is a very tough task to achieve. We also know that in the case of tuberculosis, people not completing the full course of medication led to the emergence of a strain of drug-resistant tuberculosis bacterium. So, we have many unfinished tasks as far as management of the covid pandemic is concerned.
No doubt, the recent sense of heightened caution will persuade many a vaccine sceptic to rush to vaccination centres. It has forced the government to hasten the much-delayed steps to streamline vaccine availability across the country. The present mood has driven home the need to wear masks in public places. But the big question is: How long will this heightened level of caution last? To answer that question, we should first understand why our population became so complacent vis-a-vis the pandemic in the few months preceding the second wave’s rise.
The first reason for complacency setting in comes from the fundamental nature of the human brain. When the brain’s sensory system is continually exposed to the same stimulus, it results in decreased sensitivity to that stimulus. This phenomenon of sensory adaptation occurs in all senses, with the possible exception of our sense of pain. So, as ordinary people were overloaded with sustained news reports on the risks of coronavirus, their sensitivity to this kind of information began to decrease.
While facing a threat, the human brain latches on to any stimulus that gives a feeling that the risk has disappeared and things are back to normal. While there was a lot of news about the severity of the consequences of covid and why everyone should take care, the actions of the country’s political leaders sent out contrary signals. By organizing large election rallies with no scope for social distancing, and without wearing masks in public, politicians created an impression among common folk that the pandemic was no longer a serious issue. Religious leaders also led large gatherings in the last few months. Some of them portrayed covid-related restrictions as insidious attempts to interfere with their religious beliefs. It is ironic that the very leaders who were expected to lead by example set the wrong example for their followers.
While dealing with the covid crisis, the political leadership gave the impression that each step being taken was a definitive way to halt the pandemic in its tracks. When the announcement of an all-India lockdown was made last March, the sense conveyed was that our covid problem would be solved by the end of those restrictions within a few weeks. A feeling of certainty was created around vaccines too—take your doses and you will not get infected. Little was invested in a realistic narrative, that the pandemic posed us with radical uncertainty. Because we are dealing with a virus that is new and constantly mutating, no one is in a position to accurately predict the future course of events. Yet, this uncertainty was never communicated to the general public.
In a much-cited article ‘Risk As Feelings’ by George Loewenstein, Elke U. Weber and Christopher K. Hsee, published in Psychological Bulletin, the authors remind us that people’s perceptions of the risks of hazardous technologies or activities have little to do with consequentialist aspects (i.e., possible outcomes and their probabilities). The sense of risk attached to a situation is directly proportional to the extent of perceptions of helplessness, or lack of control, in that situation. If a risk is portrayed as new, unknown and unobservable, or one with delayed harmful effects, the feeling of dread in the minds of people is much higher.
Listing out copious medical data on the consequences of infection and expecting ordinary people to do a proper cognitive evaluation of covid risks is not an effective solution. Instead, as the authors of the article remind us, human persuasion is best achieved through emotional stimuli. As the famous neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux pointed out, “Connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems."
To tackle the country’s crisis, the constantly mutating nature of Sars-CoV-2 should be played up. People getting infected even after getting their first dose of vaccine should not be portrayed as a failure of the jab, but should be framed as a sign of our need for a combination of solutions to protect ourselves from this deadly virus. The uncertainty around the virus should be used to keep everyone duly concerned and on their toes. The chances of sensory adaptation to—and complacency around—the covid pandemic will also reduce sharply. People may yearn for reassurance, but maintaining some sense of dread and uncertainty will motivate people to complete their vaccination course. This is how we may be able to avert a third wave of this pandemic.