If the Covid-19 pandemic seems unreal for you, it has been doubly surreal for me. For almost two years, I had been working on a book titled The Psychology of Pandemics, which was published in December 2019. A few weeks after publication, Covid-19 emerged and the spread of infection reached pandemic proportions. In the final chapter of my book I had a section titled “A portrait of the next pandemic.” Virtually everything described in that chapter has happened already. That chapter was originally written over a year before the world had encountered Covid-19.
Was the book prophetic, as some people claim? Not really — it was based on research.
But here’s the back-story.
I’m a clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. I treat patients, teach medical students, and conduct research. Over my 30-year career, my clinical and research interests have focused on anxiety disorders and related problems. This includes health anxiety, which was formerly called hypochondriasis.
People who are highly anxious about their health — the so-called hypochondriacs or the “worried well” — can be challenging to treat, but nevertheless hypochondriasis has always fascinated me. People with this sort of problem are excessively worried about their health even though their doctors reassure them, often repeatedly, that their health is fine. My colleagues and I treated patients with these problems, and we published research articles and books on how to help people who suffered from debilitating worries about their health.
In the midst of my clinical work and research on hypochondriasis, I kept coming across newspaper reports declaring that the next pandemic was coming. That concerned me; how would my patients react to such a calamity? So, I started doing research into past pandemics, trying to understand how people reacted to, and coped with, the threat of infection.
The more I read about pandemics, the more I realised that pandemics were essentially psychological phenomena. Pandemics were not simply about some virus infecting people. Pandemics were caused and contained by the way that people behaved. Pandemics are controlled only when people agree to do particular things, like covering their coughs, washing their hands, complying with social distancing, and getting vaccinated, if a vaccine is not available. If, for various psychological reasons, people refuse to do these things, then the pandemic will continue to spread.
The more I researched the psychology of pandemics, the more I realised that psychology is important in how a society reacts to pandemics. In previous pandemics there was racism, panic-buying, the rush of the “worried well” crowding into hospitals, and people becoming distressed about self-isolation and other forms of social distancing. It became apparent that psychology was extremely important in understanding how people cope or react to the threat of pandemic infection. And indeed we have seen all of these things in the current Covid-19 pandemic.
As I was writing my book, before the world had encountered Covid-19, I realised that I was onto something. No one, to my knowledge, had ever put all the pieces together. That is, no one had ever looked at all the ways that psychology was important for understanding and overcoming pandemics. I spent two years deeply immersed in this project, drawing together research and historical information from diverse scientific specialities and numerous pandemics. I was convinced that this was an important project because virologists have been predicting that the next pandemic was coming soon. So, it was important to understand the psychology of pandemics in order to find ways of helping people and societies in general to control the spread of contagion and to deal with the emotional distress associated with pandemics.
I like to be proactive. I like to anticipate problems before they happen. That’s one reason why I wrote “The Psychology of Pandemics.” Let’s be prepared; the next pandemic is coming. So, I submitted my pandemic book proposal to my editor in early 2019, about 10 months before the Covid-19 outbreak. He dismissed my proposal, telling me that “no one would read the book.” Deflated, I tried to explain that people are myopic; we focus on only what is immediately in front of us and tend to ignore the longer-term problems. My editor was not convinced. So, I submitted my book to another publisher and, as fate would have it, the book was published a few weeks before the outbreak of Covid-19.
In my final chapter of the book, in the section titled “A portrait of the next pandemic”, I was able to predict a fairly accurate picture of what would happen with Covid-19. However, I got a couple of things wrong. I had assumed that the next pandemic was going to be an influenza virus instead of a coronavirus. And who would have predicted the panic-buying of toilet paper? That was only explicable in hindsight.
There are a couple of predictions in the book that have still to be tested: I’m hoping that in this pandemic, like past pandemics, there will be a rise in altruism, where people come together and support one another, as far as that is possible. But I’m worried that in this pandemic, when a vaccine becomes available, people won’t bother to get vaccinated. That was a problem in previous pandemics. We can’t protect the more vulnerable members of our community if we all don’t get vaccinated — and, as we come out the other end of this humanitarian disaster, that’s something everyone needs to bear in mind.
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