The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease
Steven Taylor, PhD
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019
Reviewed by Johny Van Aerde, MD, PhD
With uncanny foreshadowing, in December 2019, University of British Columbia professor Steven Taylor published The Psychology of Pandemics describing the course of previous pandemics and their behavioural and psychological impacts. The book highlights the threats that worldwide pandemics pose, not only to governments and health institutions, but also to individual people dealing with day-to-day consequences. In an interview with Dr. Brian Goldman,1 Taylor acknowledged that the timing of the publication, on the cusp of the COVID-19 pandemic, was purely coincidental.
Taylor sheds light on the relevance of the psychological factors that play a role in creating adaptive and disruptive behaviours during pandemics. By analyzing the data of previous pandemics, Taylor explains the implications of psychological reactions and behavioural problems for health systems that arise in these times. Reading The Psychology of Pandemics is like reading a book about today’s COVID-19 pandemic rather than pandemics of the past, as most of the book’s evidence-based content is consistent with what we have been living through since the spring of 2020. Based on what we see as responses to the current pandemic, we seem to have learned little over the last decades or centuries, as we are still no better equipped to prevent, deal with, and resolve a pandemic than before. Top
The first chapters deal with basic facts of pandemics and available methods used to deal with them. Previous reactions to pandemics have focused on immediate concerns, neglecting to anticipate potential future dangers. As such, health care agencies and governments have focused on limiting the spread of infection, at the expense of other important elements, such as the psychological consequences people may experience. This happened during the plague pandemics, the 1918 influenza pandemic, SARS, and now COVID-19. This oversight might hinder positive efforts to contain and fight spread by failing to treat emotional distress and maladaptive and socially disruptive behaviours.
The focus of the second part of the book is on those psychological consequences of pandemics. Different personality traits cause people to differ in the way they react to psychosocial stressors. Although some can minimize or control their reactions, others may experience negative emotions, the most common being anxiety and fear. Mental disorders may also be triggered by pandemic-specific stressors. These reactions might also be linked to the emergence of socially disruptive behaviours, such as riots (read anti-mask gatherings during the COVID-19 pandemic), or even conspiracy theories.
These two types of reactions emerge because of uncertainty during a pandemic. People tend to believe in conspiracy theories when they are trying to understand the new environment they are living in, asserting some control over it, or maintaining the security and positive image provided by their group. Taylor accurately describes what supporters of conspiracy theories post in social media every day: (1) proponents typically make great efforts to cite supposedly authoritative sources to support their claims, even if such claims are vague (e.g., “Research at Harvard has shown that…”); (2) the theories themselves are often vague; and (3) proponents frequently use leading questions — a “just asking” style in which they raise rhetorical questions to challenge mainstream views. The tendency to believe conspiracy theories is related to certain types of psychological disorders, such as narcissism. Top
One of the final chapters of The Psychology of Pandemics is dedicated to risk communication, which becomes inherently relevant to reducing the negative reactions or defences against a pandemic. Proper risk communication by government, health, and other credible sources should aim to inform people about the best actions to take to protect their health and safety. Risk communication should, therefore, include information about coping methods and guidance on managing stress and emotional reactions, such as anxiety, depression, or anger. Direct communication with the public can lead to positive behaviours, such as good hygiene, social distancing, or even vaccination, if health authorities are perceived as trustworthy.
Providing a sense of stability during and after the pandemic and psychological support, such as cognitive behavioural therapy in higher-risk cases, will be necessary as a response to the psychological needs of people around the world. Yet, as for so many aspects of this pandemic, we are little prepared to support our citizens psychologically during and after the COVID-19 crisis.
This book is an easy and fast read. Hopefully, Taylor’s knowledge will be used in what can still be salvaged during this pandemic. As for the next pandemic, judging by Taylor’s book, the French might be right when they say, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
1.Goldman B. The psychology of post-pandemic life — why you might feel anxious about re-entry. The Dose (podcast); 19 May 2021. tinyurl.com/t947b4td
Johny Van Aerde, MD, PhD, FRCPC, is the founding editor of the Canadian Journal of Physician Leadership and executive medical director of the Canadian Society of Physician Leaders.