As devastating as the COVID-19 outbreak has been and continues to be, I must say it's been fascinating to see how the world has reacted. As someone with a background in biomedicine, I've naturally taken a keen interest in the pandemic. Not just from a biomedical standpoint, but from a behavioural standpoint as well. Seeing how humanity as a whole responds to this unprecedented pandemic has been an intriguing exploration into behavioural dynamics, where mob mentality and selfishness often wins over calm rationale. I've got a few observations I'd like to share, and I welcome everyone to share your own as well.
I'm sure we've all seen it reported online. Once a COVID-19 case has been reported in an area, people go into a frenzy and panic buy as though it's the end of the world. It even happened in Malaysia. I personally find panic buying bizarre, but given the circumstances it's easy to understand why it's happening. I've heard numerous times in pop culture that people fear what they don't understand, and I'm sure there's some legitimate psychological reasoning behind that as well. People are scared of the coronavirus probably because they don't fully understand it. All they see is that a virus has spread across the globe, people are getting infected at an alarming rate, and their flight or fight response is telling them that they need to bunker down and stay home until the pandemic dies down. People raid supermarkets and stock up on supplies and necessities. Mob mentality then takes over when people who aren't involved in the initial panic buying see that store shelves are getting cleaned out, then they too will join the panic buying out of fear that they won't be able to get their daily necessities, thus contributing even further to the panic buying. It's a ferocious feedback loop that will only feed itself the more it grows. Ultimately, society as a whole ends up hurting itself due to people's individualistic nature, and people who really need supplies will end up suffering because inconsiderate (healthy) people have hoarded everything. Worst still is when jerks hoard supplies not for their own use, but in an attempt to capitalise on other people's desperation by reselling their supplies for exorbitant prices.
Are face masks and hand sanitisers the answer?
In a word, no. But you'd believe they are the way people are panic buying masks and sanitisers. I actually saw a long line at a pharmacy the other day. First time ever. Many people have even resorted to hand-made sanitisers in a desperate attempt to keep clean (which isn't recommended). I myself don't wear a mask when I go out as I don't believe it'll make a difference. Having said that, I always do wear a mask when I go out if I'm sick. It's something my mum taught to prevent passing our infections on to others, and it's something that other people really, really need to practice, not just now, but every other day as well. One sick person wearing a mask is much more effective at preventing the spread of infectious disease than 10 healthy people wearing a mask. As for the coronavirus, to my understanding the virus is not air-borne, so you won't catch the virus by simply being in a room with someone who does have it. Transmission thus far has been heavily linked to close-contact with infected people (this is how Malaysia has been able to track the spread of the disease, example in the image below), and possibly transmission via fomites (inanimate objects that can possibly be contaminated, like door handles, elevator buttons, shopping carts etc). This mode of transmission is where hand sanitisers come in. Though a good alternative, washing your hands with soap and water should still be the first choice as it is much more effective. If you're eating out, wash your hands with soap. Once you get home, wash your hands with soap. If you can't wash your hands, avoid touching your face as this can transmit the virus, even if you're wearing a face mask.
Fake news has always been around, even more so now with social media and instant messaging apps, and this has unfortunately been escalated amid the COVID-19 outbreak. People want to be helpful, maybe even heroic by spreading news telling people to stay away from certain locations, or where testing facilities are available, or sharing homemade remedies to help fight of the virus, which actually gives the medical authorities more work as they must quickly debunk all these fake reports. I have a firm rule when it comes to news - if it comes from any source other than the authorities, I regard it to be fake. Unfortunately, many people in Malaysia will believe anything they read in a WhatsApp message, which is frustrating because it's so easy to get verified news from our own Ministry of Health which has an official Twitter page as well as a Telegram channel.
Idiots will be idiots
While sharing fake news can be seen as a good intention gone bad, some people are just idiots, and unfortunately their acts make matters worse during this pandemic.
East vs West
My brother asked me how come the spread of COVID-19 was so severe in Italy, while here in Malaysia it's seemingly well under control despite the fact that Malaysia was one of the earliest countries to be hit by the infection. I basically told him that it could be down to how well or poorly people maintain good personal hygiene. I don't have any evidence to support what I'm about to say, but I do believe that when it comes to general cleanliness and personal hygiene, most parts of Asia are better than some Western countries. Taking the face mask scenario as an example, apparently wearing face masks in the West is weird, or so I've been told. Yet in Asia, even before the pandemic people would wear masks out in public anyway and nobody would bat an eye. Considering how COVID-19 spreads, it could genuinely provide some indication of how well or poorly different societies maintain personal hygiene.
Diet could be another factor. Asian and Western diets are vastly different. Could it contribute to the ease of which the disease spreads?
And lastly, preparedness and capabilities in dealing with infectious outbreaks are very different in different countries. With past experience dealing with infectious diseases like H1N1, SARS, MERS, H5N1, etc., Asian countries have the expertise to deal with COVID-19. Something that possibly Western countries lack? It's gotten so bad in Europe that the WHO has now declared it the new epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak.
A long-lasting effect throughout 2020
While experts estimate that the COVID-19 outbreak could last til anywhere between June and the end of the year, one thing that's certain is that it will definitely have a long lasting effect throughout 2020 even after its eventual decline. Though it is a healthcare issue, almost every other global industry has suffered because of it. Sporting leagues around the world have been suspended, music events postponed, tech conferences moved to online formats, movie releases delayed, movie and TV production halted, gaming conventions cancelled, and of course, tourism has been hit hard by all the travel restrictions imposed by various nations. Regardless of how long the outbreak lasts, its impact and the damage caused by it will continue to ripple on throughout the year, maybe even into next year.
The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly be one of the biggest talking points of not just this year, but for years and possibly decades to come. Its impact has been felt far and wide and while some countries are already recovering, the outbreak will continue to be a global concern for the foreseeable future.
Do you have any interesting observations you'd like to share? Do you have any comments about the points in this post? I'm interested to hear from people in other countries about how the virus is being handled.