“COVID-19 is still not present in Myanmar… the lifestyle and diet of the Myanmar citizens are beneficial against the coronavirus,” claimed Zaw Htay, Myanmar government spokesperson, on Monday, March 23, 2020.
Really? Myanmar, one of the world’s least developed countries, which shares a 2,100km porous border with China, and has poor healthcare facilities, is the global exception to the coronavirus because of the unique lifestyle and diet? What?
The very next day, Tuesday, March 24, 2020, Myanmar announced its first two cases of COVID-19.
All of us have had to come to grips with the new reality – COVID-19 is here with us; there are no global exceptions. This disease does not respect state boundaries. Yet, some of our family, friends, colleagues, and neighbors seem to be in a state of denial about COVID-19, which puzzles us.
This letter will be about COVID-19: Why are some people in denial?
When the news about COVID-19 first hit the media, it was hard to make sense of it. Was it another SARS? Was it a hoax? Did we need to worry about it? People easily fell into two extreme camps – the group who were quick to dismiss COVID-19, and the group who were quick to panic about COVID-19. Most people adopted a “wait and see” mindset. Now, it is a pandemic, circling the globe and threatening all of us. So why are some people still in denial?
In fact, we are all mourning, missing a world we have lost, one without COVID-19. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist who worked with terminally ill patients, wrote a book, “On Death and Dying,” in which she outlined her five-stage model of grief. This framework can be applied to other situations where we experience loss, to help us understand our reactions and behavior, learn to live with what we have lost, and make sense of how we are feeling about it. The grieving process is not necessarily linear; we all experience it differently, sometimes even skipping stages or experiencing them simultaneously.
The table below describes each stage, with examples specifically for COVID-19:
What people are saying
I am pretending I did not hear about this virus! How ridiculous! Some people just find misery at every chance.
Why is everyone overreacting? Everything is fine.
The reporters are mistaken; the virus is not that bad.
The experts are confused; this is not a real thing.
I don’t care if I am the last person on the planet saying this virus is not serious, history will agree with me, I am right.
Wait, what? This isn’t happening! Come on, are you serious?
What’s the big deal? Doesn’t the flu kill more people each year?
I hate this virus! It is giving me a bad headache!
I really resent how inconvenient everything is now, grocery shopping, wearing masks, ugh!
If they were not so careless in the Chinese wet market, this would not have happened!
Where is God? How dare God let this virus come here!
This whole thing is ridiculous! So dumb!
This virus will cost us billions and crash the stock market and airline industry!
What are these idiot leaders and experts doing?
If this virus does not get me, I will promise God never to sin again; I will be a better person.
If only I had started my healthy diet and exercise regime, I’d be healthier now and more able to resist this virus.
If I had paid more attention to Biology class in secondary school, I would understand this virus better.
This is so inconvenient and distracting, but the containment measures are for the best.
The cost and setbacks from a short-term closure now is worth the lives it will save in the long run.
I am young, so it looks like if I get the virus, I will only get mild symptoms, but if my grandparents get it, they might die, so we need to negotiate how we move forward.
Everything is doomed. Why go on living?
I am confused, and I don’t know how to move forward anymore.
My whole life now has to come to this terrible end, how sad.
What’s the point of doing anything, we’re all going to get this virus and die anyway!
How will I pay my mortgage, car payment, buy groceries?
Financially, I cannot survive a long closure period, and I don’t know what to do.
I can be flexible, sort this out.
I’m so fortunate to have had a great life before this virus, and I’ll always have those memories. Now I can make new memories too.
Maybe it is time I make a career change, take advantage of new opportunities this virus creates.
Well, it is what it is, this virus is here, so let’s get on with it and try our best to do what is needed to contain it.
If we implement the right plans at the right time, we can save lives.
Most people go through the stages and end up at acceptance. However, there are a minority of people who seem stuck, even committed, to denial.
For example, on March 13, 2020, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell said on television, “It’s just strange to me how so many are overreacting. The H1N1 virus in 2009 killed 17,000 people, it was the flu also I think, and there was not the same level of hype. You just didn’t see it on the news 24/7 and it makes you wonder if there’s a political reason for that.”
On March 15, 2020, US Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) said on television, “There’s a lot of concerns with the economy here, because people are scared to go out. But I will just say, one of the things you can do, if you’re healthy, you and your family – it’s a great time to just go out: go to a local restaurant, likely you can get in easily… go to your local pub.”
On March 21, 2020, Lisa Clark, in response to the Australian government announcing closure of the beaches due to large crowds ignoring the COVID-19 warnings, said, the “whole ordeal” was an overreaction, and, “I think it’s excessive, we’re Australians, we go to the beach.”
There is an element of magical thinking in someone in denial; the person holds on to some false beliefs, even to the detriment of well-being. When trying to help someone in denial, it is important to remember that the person in denial is likely holding onto some intense emotions about COVID-19, and using denial as a coping mechanism to guard against threatening information. Denial is allowing the person to ignore the problem, and by so doing, not take responsibility for the possible consequences. For someone in denial, it is often more about identity, than it is about the facts. A person might view themselves as the community skeptic, with the role of being the one loud voice that is in opposition to the majority. It is also more about the emotions, than the facts. So telling someone to just “face the facts!” will backfire with someone in denial.
So what are we to do? Tomorrow, I will share Part Two: managing that person in your life who is in denial.
Always, with best regards, stay safe, Semper Gumby
Dawn Dekle, PhD
AUN President (Vice-Chancellor)
Teaser: stay tuned for the next letter from the desk of the AUN President, on the topic “COVID-19: What to do if someone is in denial?”