The terror of COVID-19 gripped the entire world and has influenced almost every aspect of our lives. Along with the imposition of strict measures to control the spread of the virus, it was also accompanied by different attitudes and perspectives. Opinions are constantly subject to change, which influence our decisions as well. The way we think of safety, money, or even the environment is continually evolving, and the pandemic-ridden world witnessed this change in just a matter of months. It is no wonder that people’s views about tackling this crisis also transformed since the initial outbreak, for the better or for worse.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL ENIGMA
As the skies cleared and the chirping of birds could be heard without the usual buzz of traffic, millions of people across the world seemed to take a collective sigh of relief, breathing in the clean air. During a troubling time for humanity, the prospect of a healing nature was a sign of encouragement. The substantiality of these views, however, remains to be seen.
Lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have necessitated isolation within the four corners of our homes. People have been told to work from home, schools and colleges have been closed, the previously crowded restaurants and theatres have shut down—all these actions have contributed towards fewer people stepping outside.
Although they are targeted towards handling the pandemic, these steps have also had an impact on the environment. There has been a reduction of vehicles on the road along with the suspension of travel through flights and trains. This has led to a significant decrease in the emission of greenhouse gases. Further, industrial production, which adds to releasing toxic particles into the air, had also come to a halt during the initial outbreak. According to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Air Quality Index (AQI) of 78% cities was ‘good’ and ‘satisfactory’ during lockdown as compared to 44% cities in the pre-lockdown phase.
However, what people thought would be a long-term positive effect on the environment, is turning out to be quite the opposite. As the constrictive measures are being lifted, regular activity is all set to resume. The restarting of manufacturing and transportation activities is expected to make us land right where we started from in terms of air pollution levels, if not worse. The post-lockdown period might also see more people carrying out their long-withheld travel plans, leading to an increase in air pollution.
Moreover, the pandemic has brought the problem of plastic disposal to the forefront once again. The demand for single-use surgical masks and protective gear (PPE kits, gloves, and goggles) has exponentially increased, and so has the generation of medical waste. As they contain plastic which cannot be recycled, they pose a difficulty for proper disposal and ultimately end up in water bodies. These items have also been found discarded on the streets or beaches in many areas, putting animals’ lives and the environment itself in danger.
Another point to note is that the grave environmental concerns have taken a backseat for people amid increasing tension for their health and financial security. Plastic use is justified as the packaging keeps the contents ‘safe’ and ‘sealed’; discarding it after a single use is believed to prevent consumers from infection. Now, more people prefer to order in or takeaway food from restaurants, which comes in plastic packaging. However, there is no evidence to show that the use of plastic is safer than using cloth or paper.
Waste management industries are also faced with severe challenges. Not working at full capacity, they are unable to manage the surplus of waste generated during COVID-19. They are subjected to health risks as they might come in contact with discarded items which contain the virus.
PHONE, WALLET, KEYS, AND JUST THE MASK?
In January 2020, epidemiologists had announced that 40-70% of the world population could be infected with COVID-19 by the end of the year. Yet, data collected in February shows that during the first outbreaks in the UK, Switzerland, France and Italy, the majority of the people felt that the risk of them catching the virus was around 1%. And only 5% of the population felt they were more likely to be infected by the virus than others.
This is not because people are unaware of the risks posed by COVID-19; instead, it is due to how they perceive it. People perceive their own risks increasing, but they also see others’ risk increasing with them. This leads them to believe that they are personally less likely to become infected than others. And individuals are more likely to engage in preventive measures and seek information when their safety is concerned than when the larger interests of people are involved.
This behaviour is not unique to the COVID-19 pandemic. Past epidemics such as SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome and the influenza outbreak in 2009 follow a similar pattern—the majority believed that they were less likely to contact infection than others and assumed that the outbreak would not affect their daily lives. This leads to complacency, and people fail to change their behaviour. Personal risk perception remains the best way to predict whether an individual would wash hands, use a mask, seek information about the virus and actively engage in social distancing. And studies have consistently shown that containment of any virus and body protection depends on the people’s ability to perceive the consequences. In the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19, accurate perception of risk becomes paramount.
OPTIMISM BIAS—OUR ROSE-TINTED PITFALL
Why do we then disregard safety precautions and constantly underestimate personal risks? Scientists have attributed this to Optimism Bias—it is the overestimation of our likelihood of experiencing positive events and underestimating the negative ones. About 80% of the world population have an optimism bias. Our brain encodes unexpected positive information about the future much better than negative information. Optimism bias is one of the reasons why people do not perceive the full extent of COVID-19 risks, leading them to take half-hearted or no safety precautions to follow social distancing norms.
Positive beliefs and downplaying of risks is a coping mechanism to protect an individual emotionally in the face of an unpredictable threat. It gives us a sense of control and reduces anxiety and depression by letting us believe that bad things happen to other people. But we have so much more to lose.
Optimism bias can diminish when we perceive an immediate personal threat. For instance, risk perception was found to have drastically increased over the course of the first five days after WHO declared a pandemic. This instigated people to change their behaviour and engage in protective measures. However, the COVID-19 crisis has prolonged for a long time and prolonged exposure to threat breeds familiarity, which ultimately reduces our perception of risks. A similar phenomenon was observed in other epidemics and maintaining consistency and accurate risk assessment until the pandemic ceases, remains a challenge.
Salience Bias is overconfidence as a result of an overemphasis on what people encounter. For instance, people see ‘healthy’ ones at a public place and assume that the pandemic is receding or ‘not really happening’. Whereas the truth is that the sick and the cautious are invisible to those who flout these rules – they are in isolation wards or safe at home.
PANDEMICS DON’T MIMICK
People try to understand the pandemic by referring to the Spanish flu outbreak in the early 20th century. These two strains are similar in their ways of transmission (respiratory droplets) and the surfaces they land on. Much of the preventive policies enforced in this pandemic were drawn from the Spanish flu. This includes nonpharmaceutical interventions like social distancing and closure of public places.
The terminology of ‘unlocking’ refers to the ‘waves’ that characterised the mortality rate of influenza. The reference to waves makes COVID-19 seem predictable, and we fail to perceive the flattening of the curve in its entirety. These two virus outbreaks are different in terms of their biology and social contexts.
Biologically, influenza’s genetic material is arranged in a way which makes it more susceptible to mutations. They can become either less or more deadly, and their spread increases or decreases with respect to their evolution. It is also characterised by specific seasonality, spreading more in winter. As they circulated seasonally between the two hemispheres, their mutation resulted in different ‘waves’.
Coronavirus, on the other hand, is less likely to mutate and it is currently unknown if it is influenced by seasons. It has been through multiple generations, and a decline in cases cannot be attributed to warm weather as it occurred following strict nonpharmaceutical interventions.
Spanish influenza spread mainly from the intermingling and demobilisation of World War I soldiers from Europe, Africa and Asia through rail and sea routes. Civilians across the world were involved in critical economic production activities using the same transit hubs, which led to the spread of the virus. After the third wave, the outbreak receded, maybe due to changes in the strain or the development of immunity in people. However, owing to the genetic stability of Covid-19 and the different social milieu we find ourselves in, this pandemic cannot be predicted in ‘waves’ like influenza. Physical distancing and risk perception and minimisation still remain the most effective method to curb its spread.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
Optimism bias is inherently present in us and is difficult to overcome. But one effective way to assess our risks is by forcing ourselves to develop good habits. Most things that we practise in our lives are more habitual than as a result of risk assessment. We brush every night not because we fear cavities but more so because it’s a daily ritual.
People use their experiences and those around them to guide them through everyday actions and decisions. In the present scenario, such decision making is severely hampered by the uncertainties that surround us. As a result, people still make bad decisions despite being aware of the seriousness of an issue. In this case, optimism bias can be used to achieve self-efficacy in an individual. When negative information alone is presented to people, it increases their fear and undermines their ability to overcome the situation. They become defensive instead of cooperative. Information focused only on bad public behaviour will lead people to adhere to undesirable habits. But disseminating health-promoted information that is followed by a similar social and cultural group of the receivers would motivate people to engage in protective behaviour.
Highlighting impact uncertainty as opposed to outcome uncertainty would promote precautionary measures. Outcome uncertainty is the question of whether people would be affected by one’s actions or not. In contrast, impact certainty addresses the question of how much the other person would suffer as a result of your negligence.
People can also be encouraged to quit behaviours that put others at risk by presenting it as a moral issue. Stressing on the potential harm that we can’t see, but that we can very well inflict on the elderly and weak helps minimise this risk. The knowledge of uncertain circumstances where we are likely to go wrong helps us rationalise our decisions when we notice its occurrence. Thus, we reinforce risk, and not fear, every time we follow the necessary precautions.
COVID-19’s influence is pervasive, seeping into every aspect of how the world runs. The lockdown measures and social distancing norms initially brought about a decline in pollution levels and eventually instigated right action in people. But negligent actions, affecting both environment and safety have been on the rise. It is imperative to know that one cannot keep looking at ‘external factors’ or nature to inspire change for the better. At the end of the day, curbing COVID-19 and bringing about lasting change lies in the collective, conscious perception, and action of human beings.
Written by Deepthi Priyanka C and Tulika Somani for MTTN
Edited by Rushil Dalal for MTTN
Featured Image by Ashitha Melissa for MTTN
Sources: The Royal Society, Frontiers in Psychology, Smithsonian Magazine, Marketplace, Scroll.in, Monkprayogshala