With the daily surge in the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Nigeria, it is worrisome to see a decline in adherence to the healthcare guidelines given by the authorities to curb the spread of the virus. Weeks after the ease of the total lockdown, compliance to the use of face masks and social distancing rules is rapidly declining as people continue to exist in their imaginary COVID-19-free bubble, oblivious to the reality of the rising numbers.
The coronavirus is known to spread through droplets of saliva and discharge from the nose when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It may also spread via contact with infected objects and surfaces. To protect ourselves from the virus, experts advise proper hand hygiene, social distancing, and habitual use of a face mask in public places. For this reason, government and organizations are running campaigns and stentorian advisories on the ubiquitous use of face masks.
Why then are people jettisoning the use of face masks despite the accelerating rise in cases?
Delusion of reprieve
In his book, Man’s search for meaning, Austrian psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, references a very interesting psychological concept: the delusion of reprieve. Recounting the gruesome experience in the concentration camp during World War II. Frankl tells of how new prisoners coming to the camp believed they would somehow survive the horrors of the camp and be set free to go back to their loved ones, despite having prior knowledge of the reputation of such camps for their gory and inhumane treatment of prisoners. This delusional tendency causes the human mind to be irrationally optimistic and unyielding even in the face of death.
People believe they are immune to the virus despite knowing how contagious the virus is and not protecting themselves appropriately.
This mindset may ultimately prove to be fatal in scenarios of life and death, and it is painful to see negative outcomes occur which could easily have been averted by taking simple precautions. As in the story of the American youths who threw a wild party at the height of the pandemic just to see if it was real and who would be the first to get it, thus engaging in a game of Russian roulette and paying a huge price for their folly. We seem to be falling for its tricks at this crucial time when we should be more alert to the responsibility of protecting ourselves and others.
Cues from the government
According to the YouGov dataset released in April which shows the impact of COVID-19 in countries, Swedes are the least scared of possible infection, with just 31% of its populace expressing fear. Top on the list is Malaysians and Vietnamese with 90% and 89% of the populace expressing fear of the virus, respectively.
In a Forbes article, Jonathan Nackstrand highlighted the fact that fear of contracting the virus did not correlate with the death per capita in the countries surveyed.
“The reality of the threat is not the only, or even the most important factor shaping people’s assessment of the risk posed by COVID-19”.
One major factor shaping people’s assessment of the risk posed by COVID-19 is their government’s approach to handling the coronavirus. Countries like Malaysia and Vietnam where the government had stringent rules and restrictions to curb the spread of the virus expressed greater fear of contracting the virus. This is in contrast to countries like Sweden which took a more relaxed approach, allowing schools, restaurants, and bars to remain open.
This finding suggests that people may take their fear cues from the actions and inactions of their governments rather than from the actual risk posed by the virus.
To resuscitate the comatose economy that resulted from the impact of the pandemic, nations have been easing the lockdowns and travel restrictions. People are interpreting this to mean little or no risk exists, and are letting their guard down, even though the worst isn’t over yet.
Knowledge and belief
It is unfortunate that some people still don’t believe the virus is real. Some believe it’s a mere figment of imagination; others a conspiracy by the elites and governments to divert funds to themselves. In Nigeria, for example, questions like “do you know anyone personally who has COVID-19?” are commonplace. With such low trust in the government, skepticism abounds.
At the time of writing, Nigeria has 27,564 confirmed cases and 628 deaths. With a population of close to 200 million people, 27,568 represents just 0.00014% of the population. What is the probability of a random person knowing someone with the disease when we crunch those numbers? Yes, you got it. Pretty low!
Even with 2.85 million cases and 132,000 deaths in the US, a growing number of Americans believe the pandemic is over-hyped, according to the Pew Research Center survey. Such skepticism leads to nonchalance to protective measures, including the use of a face mask.
The mask itself
Ok. It’s not all about beliefs and psychology. There’s the issue of comfort, too. Wearing a face mask is certainly not as comfortable as not wearing one, especially for a prolonged period. Masks make it harder to breathe freely, increase sweat, conceal our facial expressions, and make our voices unclear when communicating. It is common to see people chinning their face masks even in very crowded places, and easy to imagine why.
Learning from the HIV-pandemic
Organizations working to combat the spread of HIV and AIDS recorded much success when they addressed the needs of people for pleasure and intimacy during sex. Companies started to produce condoms with varying shapes, sizes, and styles to meet individual preferences, making the use of condoms more comfortable, pleasurable, and trendy. Governments and organizations distributed condoms for free on the streets and bars. The HIV campaign went beyond the news media to door-to-door and street campaigns.
We could adopt a similar strategy. Masks that fit well and feel comfortable, need to the produced and made available at strategic areas like markets and bus stops, at no cost. A lot more work also needs to be done to sensitize the people, especially in a way that would resonate with them and cause a realization of the magnitude of the problem, also highlighting the enormous difference these little preventive measures make. It is only when this is done that we might be able to hide behind the mask as we seek to win the war against this unseen enemy.