ABC Life / By Kellie Scott
Natalie has decided not to see her partner while the spread of the coronavirus in Australia continues.
The Mackay local in her 30s is symptom-free and has not had any known contact with an infected person, but is keeping her daughter home from school. She’s also stocked up on food and other supplies.
“My partner and I have different views … he isn’t taking the coronavirus seriously,” she says.
“We are not leaving the house, and because he is out there exposing himself in many ways, like going to the gym, I have had to make the choice not to have contact with the person I love.”
Natalie works from home, which it makes it easier for her to self-isolate. She’s asked her daughter’s school to provide homework, and plans to reassess the situation in a few weeks’ time.
“It’s putting a little strain on our relationship, but we’re trying to respect each other’s decisions and wait it out.”
As humans we all react to crisis differently, so it’s unlikely we’ll ever be in complete agreeance about an appropriate emotional response to the coronavirus pandemic.
What we can do is be more compassionate about where other people are coming from.
We asked the experts why are some of us stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitiser, while others scroll social media wondering what the all the fuss is about.
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It begins with how risk-averse you are
People in Australia are generally in a strong position to fight coronavirus due to our population size, health outcomes and good diet.
If you are at greater risk, such as you are over 65 or have pre-existing conditions like heart disease, it’s reasonable to take extra precautions.
For most of us, our emotional response will largely come down to how risk-averse we are, explains David Savage, associate professor of behavioural economics at the University of Newcastle.
“On one end you have the people who are absolutely risk-averse; will go out of their way to avoid risk. These people will always have insurance even for the most bizarre things,” he says.
“They are the people panic-buying.
“At the other end you have what I would classify as risk-seeking people, otherwise known as teenage boys.”
What Dr Savage suggests we should all be aiming for is to be risk-neutral. Good at weighing up odds and responding accordingly.
But he acknowledges that can be difficult given how hard-wired risk aversion is for many of us.
“This aversion is not something we switch on and off, it’s part of our innate nature.”
He says telling people to be less risk-averse is like telling someone to stop being anxious.
Avoidance versus chaos
Your personality type will dictate what level of response you have to something like the spread of coronavirus, explains Dr Annie Cantwell-Bart, a psychologist specialising in grief and trauma.
“If, for example, you come from a family where avoidance style is what you’ve been taught, that’s what you will repeat,” she says.
“Or if you come from a fairly chaotic background where your dad has been in jail and mum is an alcoholic, you will hold a high level of anxiety in living anyway.”
She gives the example of her local barista, who is casually employed.
“When I asked how he was feeling, he said he doesn’t think about it, he just gets on with life.”
She says that avoidance style has its advantages and disadvantages.
“They risk not being prepared or cautious enough. He might feel some trauma if the boss of the cafe says we’re closing down for a fortnight, because he hasn’t prepared.”
On the other end of the scale, people might respond chaotically.
“Like the punch-up in the supermarket. Some people will … get agitated and it’s probably a fear the world will somehow not support them in any way,” Dr Cantwell-Bart says.
We should be more sensitive towards people with this level of anxiety, she says.
“It’s really important not to judge people … they are in a highly aroused anxious state.”
What we’ve been through shapes our response
Upbringing, cultural background and previous experiences all shape how we respond to difficult situations.
But it doesn’t always play out in ways you’d expect. For example, someone who has survived a similar incident previously may feel a false sense of security, rather than the need to be cautious or prepared.
Your beliefs may also cause you to underprepare.
“If you believe that everything is pre-ordained, and a higher power is directing your life, you may not bother with certain precautions,” Dr Savage says.
Having compassion and understanding
Dr Savage says Australians are living in a society that is becoming more individualist than collectivist.
“Half of us are going ‘that is very anti-social’, while the other half is saying ‘good on you’,” he says in regards to people stocking up on supplies.
Dr Cantwell-Bart says in a time of crisis, it’s important to be respectful and tolerant.
“It’s about being more compassionate. Understanding that people who might be behaving in ways we might not, are doing it for good reason.”
Dr Savage recommends taking a step back to remember we’re all different, and there isn’t always right and wrong.
“Take a little bit more time to say ‘I don’t understand what that person is doing, but is that a problem?'”