Psychologist: Israel now using ‘national anxiety’ to help fight coronavirus
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Psychologist: Israel now using ‘national anxiety’ to help fight coronavirus

Orders to ‘stay home’ or risk getting sick and/or infecting others mark change from past approach, which played on altruism and aimed at psychological feel-good factor, expert says

A firefighter sprays disinfectant in a children's playground in the city of Modiin on March 17, 2020, after Israel barred residents from leaving home for "non-essential" reasons and stopped nighttime public transportation, tightening already strict measures to fight the spread of coronavirus. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)
A firefighter sprays disinfectant in a children's playground in the city of Modiin on March 17, 2020, after Israel barred residents from leaving home for "non-essential" reasons and stopped nighttime public transportation, tightening already strict measures to fight the spread of coronavirus. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

The government is deploying national anxiety as a way of getting the nation to take the coronavirus threat seriously, a prominent psychologist has said.

Hebrew University professor Jonathan Huppert told The Times of Israel that generating anxiety appears to be “part of the goal” of the rules announced Tuesday, which told Israelis to stay in their homes as much as possible.

The restrictions came after officials expressed disappointment that people were not taking existing restrictions seriously enough.

On Monday, Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov warned that people who took part in gatherings were making the country miss the chance to stop the virus while still bearing the economic burden of the lockdown. Then, President Reuven Rivlin issued a reprimand to people for failing to isolate themselves, saying: “The restrictions do not mean holidays.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference on the coronavirus, March 17, 2020. The text on the screen reads: “Stay home!”(Kobi Gideon/GPO)

As the new restrictions were announced, Bar Siman-Tov delivered one of his starkest warnings about transmission to date. “Anywhere you visit could have a sick person present, who could infect you,” he said. “You yourself may be sick and not know it, and infect other people.”

Later, on Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said too many Israelis were failing to grasp the gravity of the crisis: “This isn’t child’s play, it’s not summer vacation, it’s a matter of life and death,” he said.

Hebrew University Professor Jonathan Huppert (Courtesy)

Huppert said that anxiety, widely seen as an unwelcome side effect of restrictions, has potential as a tool to combat the spread of the virus. He said: “If the government feels we’re not being anxious enough, it may feel it needs to turn up the volume to make people more anxious.”

An anxiety specialist and board member of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, Huppert said this can prompt an increased commitment to stopping coronavirus transmission. But he cautioned that the government could end up eroding public trust if it follows in Italy’s footsteps and sends police to patrol streets to enforce restrictions and keep people in their houses.

He suggested that such a scenario in Israel would “increase people’s overall fears that we’re expecting mass casualties and have them expecting some kind of catastrophic situation.” Instead of making people trust the government’s rules, “ironically this would make people feel the government is not protecting them, which leads to a longer term sense that the world is not safe.”

Israelis enjoy the beach in Tel Aviv, March 16, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Huppert said that the latest restrictions marked a change from the government’s previous approach, which played on people’s sense of altruism and community responsibility, and aimed at a psychological feel-good factor.

He said that the government’s stance before Tuesday was based on the logic that “the more the restrictions make citizens feel they are choosing to protect others in society — rather than a sense they lack choice — the better people will feel psychologically.”

Psychologists widely believe that every development that makes the threat seem more tangible will prompt members of the public to act more cautiously to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Professor Eli Somer, University of Haifa (Courtesy)

Nobody has died in Israel from the virus as of Wednesday, but Eli Somer, emeritus professor of of psychology at University of Haifa’s School of Social Work, said that the first death will immediately trigger better compliance with precautions.

He stated: “I can say with some confidence that such a development can decrease denial about the gravity of the threat and would, therefore, contribute to improved compliance with hygiene and social distancing instructions.”

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