Princeton professor says these are the 8 biggest challenges in our fight against COVID-19

The world continues to be in a state of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has been going on for months at this point, but that doesn’t make what’s happening any more normal. As we all wake up each day, we’re faced with the same set of unique challenges as the day before. Everyone wanted this to be over by now, but the virus had other ideas. Exactly how long this pandemic will last is largely going to be determined by decisions made today, both on an individual and societal level.

COVID-19 has forced all of us to make changes in our lives that are inconvenient, uncomfortable, and stressful. Wearing a face mask in public, staying inside for days at a time, avoiding friends and even family — these are challenges that sounded laughable in February. Some have been more adaptable to this newfound reality, while others have resisted at every turn.

On that note, researchers from Princeton University and Sunnybrook Research Institute have put together a list of the eight most common human traits and behavioral tendencies that are particularly problematic in the immediate and future fight against COVID-19.

Simply being aware of these natural pitfalls may make all the difference for countless people as they struggle with the different ways COVID-19 has changed day-to-day life.

“Following the strong initial reactions to such a challenging and difficult time, awareness of judgmental pitfalls might help maintain things on the right path,” comments Eldar Shafir, a research co-author and Professor in Behavioral Science and Public Policy at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, in a university release.

Let’s take a look at all eight behavioral tendencies, as well as some recommended ways to overcome each one:

1. Fear of the unknown

One of the most challenging aspects of COVID-19 is its invisible and undetectable nature. The only thing scarier than the threat we can see is the one we can’t see. It’s what made movies like the Blair Witch Project so unsettling. This aspect of COVID-19 represents a two-pronged behavioral obstacle. First, the mysteriousness of COVID-19 has caused many to build the virus up to mythical proportions; ranging from it being a bio-chemical man-made weapon to an instrument of divine intervention sent from supernatural forces. Second, due to COVID-19’s invisibility and silent spread, many have already begun to forget about the virus and wave off the risks involved with re-opening the economy. The best way to counter all this is to repeatedly remind the public of the situation we’re all in, and always emphasize facts over conjecture.

2. Personal embarrassment

There is already a huge stigma associated with COVID-19. People right now are afraid to even sneeze or cough in public for fear of what others may assume. Many may be avoiding seeking out COVID-19 testing or treatment due to fear of personal embarrassment, harassment, or notoriety. On a smaller scale, some people may become overly upset at themselves for absentmindedly touching their face or forgetting to wipe down a doorknob. To do away with these stigmas and worries, researchers recommend advertising campaigns that mention prominent celebrities who have tested positive for COVID-19, like Tom Hanks and Idris Elba. Such campaigns could also emphasize that momentary lapses like touching one’s face are bound to happen, and are nothing to be ashamed of.

3. Neglect of competing risks

It’s hard to go even a few hours without worrying about COVID-19 for many people right now. All that time spent focusing on the coronavirus may cause some to lose sleep, neglect their exercise routine, and lose touch with friends and family. Stress can feel like an all-consuming inner prison, and as difficult as it can be, everyone should do their best to take their mind off of COVID-19 for at least a few hours each day.

4. Invisible diseases

All of this social distancing and isolation is bound to cause an uptick in mental health complaints. Some may even feel like they would rather venture outside than suffer another week alone. Ideally, a positive home environment and support system can help curb depression or anxiety symptoms. There are also online or telephone-based mental health services available.

5. No clear feedback

Timelines and predictions keep changing, and each time that happens the nation’s collective anxiety sees a big increase. When will concerts happen again? When will there be a vaccine? When will international travel be safe & permitted? These questions can keep even the calmest among us up at night. Researchers recommend never putting too much stock in any one report or news story.

6. Status quo bias

It took a long time for many to accept what was happening all around us. Some still haven’t accepted the reality of the pandemic. It’s this aversion to disrupting the status quo that has made following lockdown guidelines so difficult for people. On a similar note, once the pandemic has passed, there will likely be a big push to return the world to “normalcy.” We can’t, however, ignore the lessons learned during this ordeal.

7. Societal norms

People have been greeting each other by shaking hands, hugging, and embracing forever. For the foreseeable future, though, these habits must stop. The commentary’s authors suggest a comprehensive marketing campaign reminding the public of the dangers associated with physical contact.

8. Hindsight bias

Make no mistake, COVID-19 will pass. When that day comes, there will be countless fingers pointed at various people, organizations, and nations. Pundits will look for culprits to blame, and data will likely be interpreted in specific ways to support certain arguments. While the team at Princeton admits that it’s probably unlikely, they hope that the global community will adopt a “we’re all in this together” attitude following the pandemic to avoid these predictions.

The full commentary can be found here, published in The Lancet.