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Psychology of the Coronavirus

An epidemic of infectious disease is something that brings us right down to earth. It kind of makes a mockery of all the ways that human beings like to divide themselves up, by class, by wealth, by color, by religion, because everybody is vulnerable.


by Ruwantissa Abeyratne
writing from Montreal

“The great enigma for psychologists and philosophers is the mind.”
–Bhante Wimala

The lockdown caused by the Covid-19 spread has made us know and appreciate our families better. We are forced to have our meals together, talk to each other more and get to know each other. We are getting stronger at our three cognitive capabilities: cognitive appreciation – knowing how our family members see the world and their views of the world; cognitive empathy -understanding their worries and concerns; and cognitive proactivity – the self activation to do something about them.


We can devote our attention towards thinking more; reading more; and writing more.

However, we have to be endowed with mental equanimity to quell our own fears of disease and death which the ominous virus portends. Those who are still going to work find their minds wandering and their productivity seriously compromised. In a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article titled Build Your Resilience in the Face of a Crisis, authors Rasmus Hougaard , Jacqueline Carter and Moses Mohan say: “ Our most recent study found that 58% of employees reported an inability to regulate their attention at work. As the mind wanders, research has shown that it easily gets trapped into patterns and negative thinking. During times of crisis — such as those we are living through now — this tendency is exacerbated, and the mind can become even more hooked by obsessive thinking, as well as feelings of fear and helplessness”.

The authors illustrate their suggestions for achieving true mindfulness during this crisis by using what the Buddha called the two arrows that pierce us, the first being the initial effects of the crisis: in this case, the prohibition on travel; the depression in the stock market and the exponential decrease in our investments. The second arrow is the fear and anxiety caused by the threat of disease and death. Quoting what the Buddha said, they write: “If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?” He then went on to explain, “In life, we cannot always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. And with this second arrow comes the possibility of choice.” The second arrow will be our reaction to what we hear, from the media and details and data of death and suffering across the world.

B.H. Gallagher, writing in HuffPost says: “Buddha described the human mind as being filled with drunken monkeys, jumping around, screeching, chattering, carrying on endlessly. We all have monkey minds, Buddha said, with dozens of monkeys all clamoring for attention. Fear is an especially loud monkey, sounding the alarm incessantly, pointing out all the things we should be wary of and everything that could go wrong”.

One way to get rid of the monkeys is to practice Vipassana – the art of seeing things the way they are by rejecting thoughts of negativity. This could be achieved by meditation and reflection.

In basic practicality, the authors of the HBR article suggest some ways of calming the mind and getting back to a normal lifestyle. Firstly, by clearing the mind, secondly, by doing what they call “looking out the window” which means taking time to reflect; and thirdly, connecting with others through compassion.

These measures could be a precursor and preamble to the real second arrow that is yet to be aimed at us -the threat of despair and desperation in a mandatory lock down of the world which could lead to anarchy. Hopefully, this arrow will never be fired by a more vicious spread of the virus and we could flatten the curve. But if it does, our principles of morality should take precedence over our selfish interests of individual self preservation. The basic difference between humans and animals is that the former achieves their objectives through reason and wisdom while animals do so through instinct. Humans act through moral principles.

In a column of 11 March 2020 titled What the deadly 1918 Flu Epidemic Can Teach Us About Our Coronavirus Reaction in Los Angeles Times Patt Morrison says: “An epidemic of infectious disease is something that brings us right down to earth. It kind of makes a mockery of all the ways that human beings like to divide themselves up, by class, by wealth, by color, by religion, because everybody is vulnerable. For example, borders — borders don’t coincide with geographical frontiers, with oceans or mountains. They’re lines on a map. They’re ideas that some politician had. And viruses have no idea what that means, and they just walk across them.

An epidemic of infectious disease is something that brings us right down to earth. It kind of makes a mockery of all the ways that human beings like to divide themselves up, by class, by wealth, by color, by religion, because everybody is vulnerable.

For example, borders — borders don’t coincide with geographical frontiers, with oceans or mountains. They’re lines on a map. They’re ideas that some politician had. And viruses have no idea what that means, and they just walk across them”.

This shows that, in a way, Covid-19 has issued a clarion call for us to change our mindset towards helping each other. This is called collective resilience where we stop thinking of ourselves as individuals and unite not only as nations but as the entire world. What we do now will reflect for generations to come. As President Barack Obama said: “Years from now, generations to come will analyze the way in which we handled wars and made peace. That will be our shadow. The respect we gain as a generation will, as Obama says, not come from who our fathers and mothers were but how we did things. If we are to leave a good impression behind us, we would have to act as we actually live”. Obama goes on to say in his bestselling book “The Audacity of Hope” that our politics will have to be “constructed from the best of our traditions and will have to account for the darker aspects of our past…and we’ll need to remind ourselves, despite all our differences, just how much we share: common hopes, common dreams, a bond that will not break”.

In the end, it is our mindfulness and our wisdom that will count. We will get through this although it will be at a cost. It is natural to feel overwhelmed in a time of crisis. When that crisis passes however, we must share our stories and experiences, and build relationships. These are the shadows of the present that would remain with our children in the future.

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