Israeli public increasingly anxious, but not panicking, researchers say

Ben-Gurion University team finds that citizens who are already anxious, and those with negative views of Health Ministry, more apprehensive amid COVID-19 pandemic

Luke Tress is an editor and a reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Medical personnel after evacuating a suspected COVID-19 patient at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, March 31, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Medical personnel after evacuating a suspected COVID-19 patient at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, March 31, 2020. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Israeli public is increasingly anxious, but not panicking, amid the coronavirus pandemic, Israeli researchers said Tuesday.

A team from the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev conducted a longitudinal study to gauge public sentiment since the outbreak of the virus, finding a gradual, linear increase in anxiety in recent weeks.

The researchers polled a representative sample of 1,000 Jewish Israelis with the help of the Midgam Online Panel, which conducts online surveys for research purposes, starting when the coronavirus took hold in other countries, but before it reached Israel.

They followed up with the respondents weekly, conducting their fifth assessment last week.

Respondents answered questions on their general anxiety, their anxiety specifically regarding the virus, and their attitudes toward the Health Ministry.

“There is a linear gradual, albeit moderate, increase in anxiety both general and specific to the virus. We would expect a linear increase in anxiety because there’s an increase in threat,” the researchers said in a statement. “However, that moderate increase is crucial — it is inconsistent with panic, hysteria, or loss of control.”

A medical worker wearing protective gear takes a swab from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man for a coronavirus test in Bnei Brak, March 31, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The most significant increase in anxiety was in people who were already prone to worry. For the typical person, the effect of the virus on anxiety levels was much weaker.

The researchers suggested authorities take steps to reassure citizens prone to anxiety.

The level of worry correlated with perceptions toward the Health Ministry, with people who take a more favorable view of the ministry found to be less anxious.

“A positive perception of the Ministry of Health translates into a subsequent decrease in anxiety, which then minimizes the anxiety about the virus. If the person perceives the ministry as good, caring, and confident, then it lowers their anxiety levels. Therefore, the Ministry should cultivate and nurture just such an image,” the researchers said.

The study, which is ongoing, is headed by Prof. Golan Shahar from Ben-Gurion University’s Department of Psychology and its Stress, Self and Health Lab. It is a part of the university’s Coronavirus Task Force that aims to use the university’s faculty and resources to study the pandemic.

There have been 4,831 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country, the Health Ministry said Tuesday morning. That includes 83 in serious condition, of whom 69 are on ventilators. Another 95 are in moderate condition. Twenty Israelis have died of the disease.

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