COVID-19 and Institutionalized Denial

Mind over Coronavirus

On the eve of Yom Kippur, it seemed that the coronavirus must have gone away. That was my observation as a social and combat psychologist.

I live in a small community in the Jerusalem Hills, which is primarily secular, although there are many who would consider themselves “conservative” and “orthodox” Jews. In the same way that the virus does not distinguish between secular and religious Jews, I could not identify any differences regarding behavior.

The community leaders, including the Corona Team, anticipated a certain self- tolerated “loosening” of restrictions. For that reason, a number of announcements were made to the community via WhatsApp and e-mail, but to little avail.

Everything in life is relative. I consider the members of my community very educated, considerate, and responsible. The basketball court was not closed in order to give members the benefit of the doubt. Strict restrictions were publicized, yet they were ignored by many. Apart from the dozens who were in close contact in the court, there were many groups of both kids and adults outside the court without masks, and without regard for social distancing.

If that was the situation here, I shudder to think what happened elsewhere in Israel.

I published a short book called Mind over Coronavirus on March 30, describing the psychology of the coronavirus. The psychological phenomenon of ‘denial’ was mentioned in depth. ‘Denial’ is a defense mechanism which is activated when the reality is too threatening to comprehend. This counter-productive method of coping is achieved by either ignoring the reality, or defining it as ‘fake news’.

When I was finishing the book, President Trump was still describing the coronavirus as ‘fake news’ – a non-issue. By contrast, PM Bibi Netanyahu was preaching that the end of the world was near. While leaders always have some political considerations, these two milked the virus politically for all it was worth.

Let’s initially focus on Trump. He ‘progressed’ (or regressed) from the virus being on a threat level similar to the common cold, to being a serious threat, and then to it being a temporary threat – as a vaccine is just around the corner (in his imagination).

PM Bibi Netanyahu went from the annihilation of mankind, to ‘go out and party the night away’, to our present state of national closure.

Obviously, the medical aspects of the virus are always in the spotlight. However it seems the bright light has blinded us from seeing or understanding the psychological effect of the virus.

WE HAVE TO CHANGE OUR BEHAVIOR! The virus will be with us for a considerable amount of time. We must use psychology to help cope with the virus until a vaccine is available.

Israel’s “leaders” from the PM and President downwards did not practice what they preached, ignoring the guidelines they themselves set out. This clearly led to a credibility crisis on their part.

Back to my community. The basketball court is restricted to twenty people, the number dictated by outdoor gatherings capped at twenty. (Indoor gathers are limited to ten.) The number of twenty is the same for an outdoor gathering on a rugby pitch, at least ten times the size.

Most of Yom Kippur eve, there were fewer than twenty people in the court, although at one time I counted over thirty. The number wasn’t the problem. Kids were playing basketball and soccer, in frequent physical contact, and without masks. Kids sitting on the side were bunched up, without masks. A few kids even slept in a tent on the court. Kids will be kids, but what about the parents?

Indoor activities are more precarious. Even if ONLY ten people are in a room, the virus can easily spread when people sit in close proximity, and are without masks (or with masks covering their chins.)

Guidelines in Israel are ever mutating, yet the more they change, the more they stay the same. Numbers of people allowed to gather indoors change, regardless of the size of the place, the height of the ceiling etc.

While people can walk alone on the beach, swimming in the sea is still forbidden. Why? As long as there is no rhyme or reason behind guidelines and restrictions, people will do whatever is convenient.

Don’t get me wrong. People have to behave responsibly. We all receive articles via WhatsApp or FB, and hear the news re the virus regularly. So stupid behavior cannot be justified by blaming the authorities.

That being said, the government here has to clean up its act. When discussions in the government concerned the closing of synagogues, ultra-religious politicians conditioned their closure on the banning of demonstrations in Jerusalem and elsewhere against the PM. There are objective differences like one activity being indoors, and the other outdoors. There is also no mask enforcement in the synagogues, while the demonstrations in Jerusalem are ‘accompanied’ by hundreds of police, distributing fines like candy at a Bar Mitzvah.

Regardless of the differences, why are steps made conditional? If synagogues should be closed for health reasons, how is that related to demonstrations? And if demonstrations pose a threat to public health, what have synagogues, churches, and mosques got to do with that?

Many people wear masks in Israel simply to avoid being fined by the police. Soon that threat will be neutralized. The police have handed out too many fines. I permit myself to write “too many” because thousands of people will appeal. Even if ‘Corona’ courts (commonly known as Kangaroo Courts) are set up, they will be inundated with appeals. The authorities have already stated that people without money don’t have to pay them. Of course, “without money” has yet to be defined.

My theory is reinforced by the fact that many police don’t wear masks, or maintain social distancing, as nobody will give them fines.

An almost amusing analogy regards seat belts. In Canada, everybody wore seat belts decades before it became law – for obvious reasons. When this law was introduced in Israel, people were often heard saying “put on your seat belt or you could pay a fine.”

I was a part-time volunteer for the police at one time, serving as a safety officer at the shooting range. For accreditation, I had to do a special driving test in a police car, with a senior ‘tester’ from the Ministry of Transport. When I drove the police car, with a policeman in the back seat, the ‘tester’ next to me refused to wear a seatbelt, even after I asked! I rest my case.

To summarize, we must all adapt to a new way of life in light of the coronavirus, using the knowledge available to us from multiple reliable sources. Common sense must prevail, as we could be adhering to official guidelines, yet endangering our health, or that of others.

At the same time, we must demand more professional and moral behavior from our decision makers. I point to these people, as they often ignore the recommendations of the professionals, whether for political reasons or egotistical ones.

While relatively few people in Israel have died from the coronavirus, the long closures are killing the economy, consequently damaging the mental health of many. Extended closures may well reduce the number of those infected by the virus, but destroy the quality of life of many.

When the closure ends, one may hear something along the lines of “The operation was a success, but the patient died.”

About the Author
Rocky Abramson is the author of two books: 'Mind over Coronavirus' and 'The Combat Psychologist.' He is a Canadian-born organizational psychologist and a combat psychologist in the IDF reserves, having served in elite units as a combat officer. He applies his unique experience to high stress situations. He has engaged in consulting, and conducted an array of workshops, specializing in 'The Psychology of Terror.' Rocky lives in the Jerusalem Hills.
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