Do you have coronaphobia?
Why we’re developing rituals that trap us in cycles of anxiety
Co-authored with Dr Chris Merritt
The masked young couple both freeze as I jog towards them at a safe distance. They’re staring at my uncovered face. I watch as they take out a tub of antibacterial gel and sanitise their hands as I pass, before walking on. Further down the road, there’s an older man. He sees me coming towards him, then closes his eyes and silently makes the sign of cross over his chest as I run past. Later, I reach a small church and stop to take a look inside. I notice that the font of holy water by the door is dry. In its place is a dispenser of ‘holy’ hand gel for worshippers to use, perhaps while they pray for protection against the virus. Anti-covid rituals like these seem to be everywhere now, but why?
Order from chaos
Anthropologists have long noted how rituals serve a function of imposing order on the chaos of our lives and reducing anxiety. From sacrifices and offerings to the gods for good harvests in ancient times to taking a selfie today, rituals are part of human life worldwide. And, in the current circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic with all of its stress and uncertainty, seeking safety through rituals is completely understandable. But it comes at a cost.
The price of unhelpful rituals
Some rituals that have emerged since the pandemic began have been largely beneficial: mass clapping for keyworkers to show solidarity, singing with neighbours on balconies to lift spirits, and online quizzes to pass the time with friends in lockdown. But these wellbeing-boosting rituals are sadly in the minority among out new patterns of behaviour. Far more common are the unhelpful ones we’ve developed.
Many of us have been terrified into avoiding largely safe places and activities, carrying out excessive cleaning and sanitising of ourselves and everything around us, and — perhaps the most toxic new ritual of all — the constant consumption of news. Checking headlines or stats several times a day is particularly problematic, due to the amount of alarmist, fake or politically motivated material out there. The WHO even referred to this ‘infodemic’ as being more widespread than the virus itself.
Coronaphobia: excessive fear
In short, many of us are developing coronaphobia: an excessive fear of catching or having the virus. This fear can be distressing and disabling, but it’s also disproportionate to the risk that most of us face from Covid-19. It’s a phobia — an extreme and unrealistic sense of danger — like the fears of heights, clowns, thunder, specific colours or other things that are generally unlikely to hurt us.
Of course, for some people — mainly older adults with underlying health conditions — the danger is real, and we need to help protect them. But, for most of us, the anxiety which is produced and fuelled by these new rituals is far greater than the virus warrants. And, because worry feeds on isolation and restrictions, we’re deprived of the chance to challenge our fearful beliefs in the real world, and the worries grow.
Guarantees that don’t exist
We end up looking for guarantees that we don’t have Covid-19, and that we won’t get it. This pursuit of certainty not only feeds coronaphobia — it’s pointless too. Even a vaccine won’t give 100% protection to all people, all the time, with lifelong antibodies for all strains of the virus. And our most recent Covid-19 test is out of date as soon as we’ve taken it.
We perform the rituals to feel more in control, but because they can’t give us the certainty we crave, we simply feel more anxious. So, we repeat the behaviours, slipping into a pattern that’s virtually the same as obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. We end up going around in circles, feeling worse and worse.
Practically, that fear might also stop us doing things we really need to do, like obtaining other medical treatment or shopping, as well as activities that help our wellbeing, like distanced socialising and exercise.
Learning to live
Research is showing that our mental health has taken a serious hit from the pandemic — mood is down while anxiety, loneliness and insomnia are up for many of us. We need to tackle these problems, and a big part of that is not allowing coronaphobia to cripple us and shrink our lives. Instead, we must learn how to live with the virus, which will be around for a long time even after vaccines start to be rolled out.
Rituals are a hugely important part of human culture. But the ones we’re starting to develop around Covid-19 aren’t very helpful at dealing with a virus. They’re trapping us in a cycle of anxiety that we need to break if we want to live life.
To find out how to beat coronaphobia, read my second piece on the subject. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t involve crossing yourself, or sanitising your hands at every passing jogger.