Why Some People Are Not Taking COVID-19 Seriously

Written by Rida Tahir on March 27, 2020 (10 minute read)

The coronavirus pandemic is scary and surreal, like we're in a zombie apocalypse movie right now with a deadly virus outbreak that's spreading faster than wildfire. I won't lie, I am starting to panic.

On 20th March, total COVID-19 cases were 274,732 and total deaths were 11,369, globally.
And as I write this, on 26th March, total cases are 531,865 and total deaths are 24,073.
In just one week, 257,133 new cases have been confirmed and 12,704 people have died.

I think now is the time when we are better off overreacting, over-preparing and dying of the virus, than underreacting, not preparing at all, not taking the pandemic seriously and dying of our own ignorance and stupidity.

Things are getting worse. Yet, so many people around us are still in denial about their risk of contracting COVID-19, saying things like, "Nothing will happen, God is with us", as if they have some magic cloak of protection that would protect them against the virus.

Confidently flaunting the I-don’t-know-and-I-don’t-care attitude, they are the least concerned about the impending catastrophe of COVID-19 and going about their lives as if nothing has happened.

They are going to parks, partying, having picnics, organizing events and gathering crowds, playing cricket on the streets, dining out in restaurants, etc. despite government restrictions and country-wide lockdowns, and not taking any precautions, not changing their behavior at all, even going as far as making fun of the situation and mocking people who're taking it seriously.

Some of these people also think the whole COVID-19 thing is just hype and
media is making a mountain out of a molehill for their own ulterior motives and political reasons.

But why are they doing this?

Why are people not taking it seriously?

Why are people in denial?

That's what I am going to talk about in this article.

Defense and Coping Mechanism

Denial is when a person refuses to admit the truth or reality of something that is unpleasant or is unwilling to accept that something unpleasant is true.
In Psychology, denial is a defense or coping mechanism in which a person avoids confronting a problem or reality by denying that the problem or reality exists and choosing not to believe when all the evidence is right there in front of him.

Denial protects us from pain, from coming to terms with a painful truth or reality, from experiencing difficult emotions and from being overwhelmed with our own emotions. It disables our feelings and acts as a shock absorber, which can be a useful way of coping and help us assimilate a difficult truth.

So when we hear people saying, "It’s just hype and not as big of a deal as media is making it", it essentially means, "okay, there's a threat, but it's not serious. It's not going to affect us, we don't need to change our behavior, we are in control. The virus is spreading in China, Italy and Iran, but it's not spreading as fast in Pakistan, so we can still go out, have fun, meet people and live a normal life."

Here's how their reasoning goes:

  • God is with me, so nothing will happen to me.
  • The virus is in China, Italy and Iran. It will die out before it reaches Pakistan
  • Even if it does come to Pakistan, I won't get it because I am young and have a strong immune system
  • I am going to a party, but I will wear a mask and will wash my hands frequently.
  • Even if I do get the virus, I am sure it won't be that bad and I'll recover just fine.
  • If God has destined it for me that I will get the virus and die from it, there's nothing I can do to prevent it anyway, so why bother?

Forms of Denial

Denial can take three forms:

  1. Simple Denial
    Simple denial is when a person denies the existence of a problem. We instinctively want to deny danger, because it protects us from fear or panic. Applying it to the current scenario, simple denial would be people denying that coronavirus exists or trying to prove that it's a lie. Luckily, this is rare in case of COVID-19.

  2. Minimization
    Minimization is when a person admits there is a problem, but downplays its seriousness. In the current scenario, minimization is when people are aware of the virus outbreak but try to minimize the seriousness of the situation. For example, saying or thinking:
    • It's just a kind of flu.
    • The symptoms are mild and most people recover.
    • More people die from flu and heart disease every year
    • It's not that big of a deal that media is making it out to be or that media is blowing things out of proportion

  3. Transference
    In transference, a person admits the existence of a problem and also admits the seriousness or severity of that problem, but downplays his moral responsibility towards that problem.
    In the COVID-19 scenario, transference is when people believe that there is a virus outbreak and it is serious, but they don't want to accept personal responsibility towards the situation, so they act like they have no control over the situation. For example, saying or thinking:
    • I have faith in God, nothing will happen to me, God will protect me.
    • Death is inevitable and we're all going to die anyway so why live in fear?
    • What is going to happen will happen, no matter what I do. So why bother
      taking precautions?
    • It's better to die from the virus than live in constant fear of contracting the virus.

Imminence of Threat

Humans tend to alter their behavior depending on the proximity (close or distant) and imminence of threat (slow or fast moving). Our brains are slow to realize a threat and wired to respond only to threats that are fast-moving or immediate and close or personal, such as health issues, earthquake, flood, robbery, etc. but not wired to respond to threats that are distant, slow moving and not personal, such as climate change, global warming and COVID-19.

Now, COVID-19 is not slow-moving at all as it has spread exponentially over the entire world in just a few days, but it is slow-moving in a relative sense; in other words, it is slower to spread in certain countries like Pakistan as compared to China, Italy or Iran.

In other words, we don't take the threat seriously, unless it is close, staring us right in the face and affecting us on a personal level. That's why many people only begin to realize the gravity of the situation only when someone close to them (family, relative, friend, colleague or neighbor) falls victim to the threat.

That's why so many people deny climate change or global warming, because the threat is not immediate and these issues are not affecting them personally.  
That's why people are denying the seriousness of COVID-19 and saying things like, "We're going to be okay. We have faith in God. God will protect us".

Lock that person in a room and set the room on fire and ask him if he won’t try to escape because he has faith that God will protect him. Chances are, in such situations, a person will keep all his faith and trust in God aside and run for his life, why? Because now the threat is immediate and personal and it's a human instinct to run or try to escape when his life is in danger and the threat is looming right over his head.

God will NOT personally visit you to save you from danger. You will have to first use your brain to think of a way to escape and then you will have to use your body to actually get yourself out of the room. Just having faith in God is NOT going to protect you against any danger because God is not your personal bodyguard.

Denial is like burying your head in the sand like an ostrich and hoping that the reality or the threat can't see you because you can't see it. But that's not how things work in the real world.

Even though denial can help you cope with a painful truth or difficult emotions, it can also keep you from taking responsibility for your life, especially in the presence of a threat or  danger to your life. It can keep you from assessing the danger, making an escape plan, preparing for an impending disaster and taking preventing measures.

Denial can get you killed!

That is what is happening in the COVID-19 situation.

When we go too far in denying an impending disaster, we are slow to respond to and prepare for the situation. By the time we react, it's too late and we end up doing more damage than the damage that would result if we had responded more quickly.

This is what happened with Iran who initially denied the threat COVID-19 posed, then covered up the scale of the outbreak and then denied covering up the scale of the outbreak.

Result? Iran is the 4th worst-hit country after China, Italy and Spain with over 1600 people dead because of the virus.

Lack of Knowledge

Some people may look like they are in denial but it may simply be lack of knowledge, they don't know what they don't know. For example, people from lower working class, people working as laborers or factory workers, hawkers, janitors, sweepers, housemaids, people living in slums, etc. They may have no idea what coronavirus is and that there is a virus outbreak because they may not have access to TV, radio, internet and social media.

Cognitive Dissonance

Have you ever wondered why people smoke when they know cigarettes are bad for their health? This is a classic example of cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance is a term used in Psychology to describe psychological stress and mental conflict that a person experiences when his beliefs and behaviors do not align, or when a person holds two or more beliefs that contradict each other.

In the Coronavirus pandemic, people who are in denial and resisting change in their lifestyle are actually experiencing cognitive dissonance and their denial and resistance are their attempt to reduce this dissonance. They believe that God will protect them against the disease, but taking precautionary measures against the disease makes them feel like they do not have faith in God's ability to protect them. This tension or discomfort between their belief and behavior is what is called cognitive dissonance. Now, they want to align their belief and behavior and reduce this dissonance. They do this by not taking any precautionary measures and rationalizing their behavior by saying that they have faith in God.

Fear of Change and Need for Control

Human beings are, by nature, afraid of change because change means stepping out of the comfort zone and they feel threatened by that. Just the thought of having to alter their lifestyle can cause them to panic. This fear is more pronounced when the said change is partially or fully imposed, rather than voluntary. So people tend to resist any change as much as they can.

Denial, on the other hand, is the path of least resistance. It's easy and comforting. Human beings also, by nature, want to be in control of their lives because it makes them feel safe. They want the freedom to make their own decisions and don't like restrictions placed upon them, so they resist and rebel against them.

That’s why we're seeing so many people deny the gravity of the situation and resist the changes they are being told to make, such as staying home and self-isolation, not gathering in crowds, etc. doing the very things they’re being told not to do.

No wonder the changes are now being forced upon them, because they do have the choice and they’re choosing to act irresponsibly. People can choose to go into voluntary self isolation, and many people have, but a large majority is resisting and not paying heed to Government pleas, restrictions and instructions. This persistent denial and resistance has pushed governments to impose nationwide and citywide lockdowns and curfews, for e.g. in Jordan and Iraq.

And as much as lockdowns, curfews and forced self-quarantine feels draconian, it is in the best interest for us all.

It’s going to get worse before it gets better, but I hope things don’t become too bad to get better because of the people in denial.

Let's keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best.