COVID-19 is not just a medical and physical health pandemic; it has also led to interrelated phobias concerning health, finances, law, leadership, and loneliness. These interconnected phobias feed off each other and can alter a person’s decision-making, risk perception, and self-identity. They also create and increase anxious feelings in sufferers.
Anxious people seek and take more advice, have impaired information processing and lower self-confidence, fail to differentiate between advisors with and without conflicts of interest, and fail to discern good from bad advice. A person’s level of anxiety correlates with their response to the pandemic. Too much anxiety, namely panic, causes hoarding. Too little anxiety, namely complacency, causes non-compliance with Non-Pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs), such as physical distancing, pausing non-essential economic activities, self-isolating, and self-quarantining.
COVID-19 and governmental NPIs have fueled anger in some. Angry people are less likely to accept advice, such as complying with NPIs. They are also more likely to spread hate. In Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, the sage, Yoda, famously states, “[f]ear is the path to the dark side . . . fear leads to anger . . . anger leads to hate . . . hate leads to suffering.” Although the overall psychological veracity of this famous quote is debatable, it has been documented that the mortal fear caused by the pandemic has led to anger and partisan hate (crimes) towards, and suffering by, Asians and Asian Americans.
To combat these issues, the American federal government can and should decouple COVID-19 related health phobias from financial phobias. One way it can do so is by paying every American a monthly COVID-19 Pandemic Financial Assistance Dividend (CPFAD), much like Andrew Yang’s proposed freedom dividend to help Americans deal with unemployment due to automation. CPFAD payments can be fairer and faster than rescuing corporations, which rest on the hope that corporate aid will trickle down to the people. CPFADs are fairer because they are directed to all Americans, independent of whether they work at particular businesses or industries. They are quicker because money goes directly to the people instead of through bank loans or employers.
Another strategy is to employ gentle enforcement—high probability enforcement of small penalties—as suggested by cognitive psychologist Ido Erev. Gentle enforcement can help achieve compliance with NPIs. Crises, like COVID-19, require leaders to act decisively and motivate people to change behavior and thinking. Such gentle leadership communicates effectively to persuade the public to buy-in and voluntarily comply with NPIs because enforcing NPIs through fines or prison time is unrealistic.
In fact, many countries with successful COVID-19 policy responses have female leaders practicing gentle leadership. President Ronald Reagan likely would have agreed with this approach. In his 1988 “this place called America, this shining city on a hill” State of the Union Address, President Reagan quoted the Taoist philosopher Lao-Tzu, “[g]overn a great nation as you would cook a small fish; do not overdo it.”
Finally, mindfulness training should be promoted. Prolonged NPIs spawn loneliness, which may lead to adverse physical health consequences, distressing mental health impacts, and harmful substance abuse as self-coping mechanisms. Mindfulness training reduces loneliness.
Alleviating COVID-19 phobias improves not only mental health, but also the duration and outcome of the pandemic by improving compliance with NPIs. People may not comply with NPIs because they (1) cannot, (2) do not want to, or (3) want to and can, yet nonetheless do not. Ensuring people have cloth face masks, enough money to weather income shocks from COVID-19, jobs to return to after the pandemic, and enough space to physical distance, address (1). Paying people monthly CPFADs moderates financial pain. Practicing mindfulness and social media campaigns, like the #IStayHomeFor challenge, remind people how their choices can reduce infection and healthcare congestion externalities, and address (2). Gentle leadership addresses (3). Together, these measures can help the U.S. respond to the phobias created by the pandemic.
Peter H. Huang is a Professor and DeMuth Chair of Business Law at the University of Colorado Law School. He received his J.D. at Stanford University Law School, Ph.D. at Harvard University, and his A.B. degree at Princeton University. This blog post draws from Professor Huang’s recent Pandemic Emotions: The Good, the Bad, and the Unconscious — Implications for Public Health, Financial Economics, Law, and Leadership.