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Part II: What’s Happening Now And What Comes Next, Dr. Pennebaker Speaks About The COVID-19 Crisis

This is Part II in a series of discussions by Dr. James Pennebaker, where he discusses what we can expect from the COVID-19 crisis, based on similar events in the past.


Read Part I: Studying Communities in Crisis


What should we be expecting now, and what should we expect to happen next?


Something interesting that happens when the world turns upside down is people are able to grab their resources and actually do pretty well. There's a famous study that was done in World War II, looking at suicide rates during the blitz bombings in London. What they found was that there was a huge drop in suicide. And there have been a lot of studies that have been done around the world since then showing that when the culture is under attack, people tend to draw together. Ironically, mental health improves overall.


For example, since the COVID crisis began people have been calling mental health crisis lines at lower rates than they have in a long time. People are searching for family and spousal abuse relief at much lower levels. In almost every city, mental health workers have been put on alert, expecting that being stuck with family members this long would increase family violence. All the evidence is suggesting that's not happening. In all likelihood, as this goes on, of course it will increase. But here at the beginning, oddly this is often a weight that brings people together and they're more supportive of others.


We're seeing this reduction in anxiety. We're seeing a drop in future-focus. We know with every upheaval that there are stages that have historically occurred. Initially people talk about it a lot, and then there's this next phase where people actively don't talk about it because everybody's so sick of listening to it. And then people finally adapt, and sometimes there are long-term changes, usually there are not. Usually people kind of get back to normal, they just don't think about it much. We're still right in the middle of this and we don't know what the future brings.


Most huge events that we've studied have brought about some reverberation in the economy. This one's really different in the sense that the economy has crashed and the numbers are truly horrifying in terms of the current unemployment, how long it'll last, the nature of rebound of companies, how many of the companies that we're seeing now are destined to go out of business. 


We have that going on in addition to the disease, and one other issue of the disease is will it come back? I've done a lot of work and research on the 1918 pandemic. That's a really creepy one because it started about this time, and it seemed to have ended by the beginning of summer but the more deadly version of it came back in September. The huge death rate was between September and November of 1918. 


I think part of it is people assumed that we've been through it, that this is minor. This just points to some of the unknowns that we are dealing with. What we're finding now is that it seems we've been through this first part. We're looking around and most of us in the US and Canada don't know anybody who has been very sick. We might know of a small number. Most of us don't know anybody who has died. We may, but again, a small number. We're watching this on television, and we see that this is having a huge effect, but there is this sense from the president on down that things are going to be great soon and that things are going to be back to normal.


But what we're picking up in our surveys is there is not a strong sense of optimism. People are really anxious, and they're really anxious about questions like: what do I do? What do I want? What would be the first thing I would do once I got out of this solitary confinement? It's almost as though we've adapted to this new world, and the possibilities of the next world we will enter are frightening because there is so much that is unknown. Our future social interactions are still very much in the air. There's still anxiety, but it's not the same kind of anxiety that we saw when we started.


Comments per day over the past year in /r/Anxiety, a subreddit dedicated to providing support for those experiencing anxiety.





Posts per day over the past year in /r/Relationship_advice, a subreddit dedicated to providing on advice for problems in any type of interpersonal relationship.

In every previous pandemic, such as the most recent in 1918, the technology that connects us now hasn’t been available. What impact does the presence of modern technology have on the psychological response to this pandemic in comparison to past ones?


1918, Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, at a hospital ward at Camp Funston.

Otis Historical Archives, National Museum of Health and Medicine


Well, modern technology has changed a lot. In 1918 there wasn't the communication that we have now, although around much of the world it became immediately apparent that this flu was incredibly dangerous and that people needed to shelter in place. Many cities did that, and they had relatively low death rates. And that's when we learned about the concept of flattening the curve. But then other cities just dismissed it with responses along the lines of "this is just like every other flu we've had, it's no big deal, a bunch of whining by a bunch of lazy bums." For example, the mayor of Philadelphia was horribly dismissive -- and Philadelphia was absolutely decimated by the flu because they didn't shelter; they went ahead and had big parades and parties and so forth. So even though our technology is better, it still requires a certain type of leadership and a certain type of guidance for people to appreciate the big risks.

Given the immense nature of this, is there any part of this that we expect to be a permanent change?


First of all, I have no idea. This is like asking to give you some tips on the stock market. Maybe people in the United States will decide that Canadians are onto something with their system of universal healthcare. It's interesting that this is all occurring during a period of unbelievable divisiveness and a period of Nationalism worldwide. When you've got an international disease, Nationalism's kind of a dumb idea. So maybe we’ll see changes on that front.


But I should bring up one warning – the 1918 pandemic. It started the last year of World War I and it killed far more people than the war did. In fact, it killed more US citizens than all the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries put together.  I grew up, as everybody else I know did, knowing absolutely nothing about the 1918 pandemic. I heard it referred to maybe once or twice. I knew it existed but didn't know how many people were killed. I never heard my grandparents or anybody else in my family ever mention it. Here was something that brought about a sense of unbelievable terror. The stories are horrifying compared to anything we've seen with this. And then it was gone. Virtually no books were written about it, no poems were written about it, there's nearly no artwork about it. It's this black hole of history. Did it make a difference in the world? It clearly did in terms of the nature of medical technology, medical knowledge, and the way that we think about epidemiology. But I don't know how else it changed the world. Maybe this will be the same thing. Maybe one day somebody is going to say, “well it's over, let's get on with life,” and nobody will look back. We just don't know.



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