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Coronavirus psychology: is thinking a second wave is inevitable stopping us from taking it seriously?

Talking about a second wave as if it’s inevitable may help us to mentally prepare ourselves for future lockdown restrictions, but it can also make us feel like our efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus are futile – and that’s a problem.

For a couple of weeks now, talk of a second wave has dominated the coronavirus news cycle.

Across the world, countries that previously had the virus under control are now putting entire cities into lockdown after a surge of cases. New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern has even had to put Auckland back in lockdown after a rise in cases there, despite the country’s previous success in keeping a grip on things.

Watching these developments unfold, it’s hard not to feel a sense of impending doom about the whole thing. For months now, we’ve spoken about a second wave as if it was something far in the future – we even discussed what we should do to prepare ourselves in the meantime, with the proactive view to ready ourselves for a repeat of the heavy strain we’ve been under these last few months. But watching all these countries return to lockdown and grapple with a second rise in cases, it’s hard not to feel as if a second wave could be heading our way pretty damn fast.

I know I’m not the only one feeling like a sitting duck. All around me, friends and family members have shifted their tones – what was once spoken about as a hypothetical scenario is now being referred to as an inevitability. “We might as well go out now before lockdown comes back” and “let’s enjoy it while it lasts” are just two phrases I’ve heard various iterations of over the last month or so. 

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It’s happening in the political sphere, too. As Matt Hancock previously told Sky News: “I think you can see a second wave starting to roll across Europe, and we’ve got to do everything we can to prevent it from reaching these shores, and to tackle it.” The language here has undoubtedly shifted – we are no longer on the offense, actively fighting the virus and working towards a Covid-19 free future, but defending ourselves against a mighty enemy rolling towards us whether we like it or not.

While on the surface this shift in language may seem inconsequential, underneath, it’s a lot more insidious. Because while talking about a second wave as if it’s inevitable may help us to mentally prepare ourselves for new lockdown restrictions, it also relieves us of all responsibility – and that’s a problem. 

Why? Because as Dr Meg Arroll, chartered psychologist on behalf of Healthspan, explains, talking about a second wave as if it’s completely out of our control could mean we’re less likely to engage in preventative behaviours to curb the spread of the virus.

People wearing face masks
Coronavirus second wave: thinking a new surge in infections is inevitable may lead us to believe our efforts to prevent the virus are futile.

“In the field of psychology, there is a robust evidence base which demonstrate how our beliefs influence our overt behaviour – these beliefs include whether we feel we have control over an outcome, or on the other hand, whether it is inevitable,” she explains. 

“This concept is known as the ‘locus of control’ and is made up of three dimensions – internal, external chance and external powerful others. When we have an internal locus of control, we believe that our actions can affect a result – for example, when we think that eating a variety of fruit and vegetables will benefit our long-term health, we’re much more likely to pursue that sort of diet.”

Arroll continues: “However, if we think our health is largely the responsibility of health professionals – external powerful others – or is determined by luck or ‘external chance’ (e.g. ‘I could get hit by a bus tomorrow so I may as well eat whatever I want’), we’re much less likely to engage in health-protective behaviours.”

In this way, talking about a second wave as if it’s inevitable takes away our belief that preventative actions to stop infection spreading within the community – such as wearing a mask or abiding by social distancing guidelines – can impact the overall result, making us much less likely to engage with them in the first place.

“If we don’t think that behaviours such as hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing will make a jot of difference to infection rates, it’s highly unlikely that we will follow these guidelines,” Arroll says. “This is where accurate public health messages can change the course of a pandemic.”

Even though a second wave may be pretty likely at this point, it’s important to remember that it’s not some uncontrollable, mysterious enemy that’s coming to get us, it’s the result of hundreds of cases happening all at once – some of which can be prevented by wearing masks, practising social distancing and limiting our social contact.

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Talking about a second wave as if it’s inevitable also takes responsibility off of the shoulders of the government – something we cannot allow to happen if we want to ensure the people who represent us are doing everything they can to control the pandemic.

Our actions over the next couple of months have the power to reduce the devastating impact of any potential second wave, including how we speak about the subject itself. Even though a second wave may be likely at this point, we all have a responsibility to look after ourselves and those around us. After all, every case that is prevented could be a potential life saved – and what’s more important than that?

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