Michael J. Salamon

Rumors in the Time of Covid-19

There are three basic forces that drive rumors. First and perhaps most relevant is that rumors, stories that may have a grain of truth but are more likely not completely accurate, are designed to be of value because they provide access to information. When true, the information contained in a rumor may be useful. At times rumors are little more than gossip and speculation. More commonly rumors tend to be potentially harmful for example when spreading a truthful rumor that breaches confidentiality causing pain and emotionally abusing the people who are the focus of the rumor. Even if not real, rumors have some meaning and bearing. Issues that are current and important to people who are in the group that the rumor is targeted for and the buzz that the stories cause have a degree of special significance for those who are meant to hear the rumors. If the rumor though, misdirects people from taking an appropriate healthy action then the rumor can be deadly.

In a real sense rumors can make people feel empowered. They can make people feel important as if the information is hush-hush and by having access to the secret contained in the rumor there is special access to a level of knowledge or insight that makes the recipient unique. Repeating a rumor can make it believable. The more you repeat an idea, no matter how untrue, the more it becomes plausible. Having access to a rumor can make the carrier of the story feel empowered, have an enlarged self-image and give them a sense of social status that they may otherwise lack. And the more the rumor spreads the more powerful the creator of the rumor feels. For all these reasons, a sense of being unique or special, enhancing self-power and spreading falsehoods, rumors have the potential to be highly dangerous and in special situations, they are.

Rumors spread like wildfire during times of stress. There are some well-known psychological reasons for this phenomenon. When we are uncertain and fearful, we seek comfort in whatever information is available, even if it is just an anecdote without firm basis in reality. We will take in news that may not be true just to maintain a sense of calm. Even if the news is not good just having some information gives us a sense of control no matter how arbitrary or disruptive or unreal the information may be. But if the rumor has even a shred of hope and we have that information we can share it secretly to many and enhance our social status. Unfortunately, that is what is happening now during the Covid19 pandemic and it is causing people to believe stories that are potentially very harmful.

While it is important to eat healthy, get a good amount of rest and try to be socially engaged, all of which contributes to physical and mental health, there is, as of now, no proven, effective treatment for this novel virus. There is no medical, homeopathic or dietetic cure, no treatment and no clear understanding as to why some who are infected may not develop symptoms while others may become critically ill in a matter of just a few hours. There is also no vaccination against Covid19. Eventually there will be treatment and a vaccination, and I would not be surprised if it even gets included in the standard flu vaccine given every year. But despite the many rumors, not yet.

It is also a nasty rumor to call this a Chinese virus. True it originated in Wuhan province China, but many diseases do. When I was a first-year graduate student I had a professor who taught us that as the world got smaller, as business became more geographically intertwined and travel became more affordable and common we will likely be exposed to a whole new variety of diseases. This disease was not created in a virology laboratory. It is not a form of biochemical warfare. It is a medical disease that is challenging, frightening and very disruptive. Blaming a culture does nothing to help conquer the disease but it does allow the spread of dangerous falsehoods.

This is also not the first time that there have been global pandemics. According to a historical review humanity is exposed to new diseases that can evolve into pandemics about every century and a half. And humanity is still here.

If we dismiss the rumors and follow the proper recommendations, not be dismissive of the disease and take the proper precautions, we will handle this well. Keep physical distance. Do not go to gatherings with others and become a vector spreading the disease. Take care of your health. And above all, get your information from reliable scientific sources, not rumor mongers.

About the Author
Dr. Michael Salamon ,a fellow of the American Psychological Association, is an APA Presidential Citation Awardee for his 'transformative work in raising awareness of the prevention and treatment of childhood sexual abuse". He is the founder and director of ADC Psychological Services in New York and Netanya, the author of numerous articles, several psychological tests and books including "The Shidduch Crisis: Causes and Cures" (Urim Publications), "Every Pot Has a Cover" (University Press of America) and "Abuse in the Jewish Community: Religious and Communal Factors that Undermine the Apprehension of Offenders and the Treatment of Victims."
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