From applause to noise protests, how do we explain the change in support for the coronavirus measures?
Charity initiatives were in full bloom during the spring, as solidarity and support for the corona measures were strong among the Dutch people. However, this came tumbling down for a part of the population after the summer. Protests against the measures grew louder, and not the virus, but government policies, seemingly became the enemy. The healthcare workers, who were applauded in March, were increasingly confronted with misunderstanding and aggression during the year. How can this be explained?
“In the beginning, there was a broad, deep fear of the new coronavirus,” says Arie Dijkstra, professor of Social Psychology of Health and Disease at the University of Groningen. “That also explains the hysterical applause. That sounds a bit unkind, but massive clapping for healthcare personnel is not authentic. It arises from fear. That fear diminished in society at a later stage.”
According to Dijkstra, the decrease in fear of the virus has the following reason: one will only act upon their fear if they experience danger themselves. Many Dutch people found that they did not become ill, despite the rising threat of the virus. Subsequently, they do not always adhere properly to the measures. “Then the conclusion is: it’s not too bad,” says Dijkstra.
Hand in hand
Agneta Fischer, professor of Emotions and Affective Processes at the University of Amsterdam, also recognizes this phenomenon. “If people are more anxious, they are more likely to support the measures. If they become less afraid and if no one in their environment gets sick, then a person will soon think: what are these measures good for?”
This is thus a ‘normal’ phenomenon in psychology. But the infection rate in the Netherlands rose, partly due to this kind of attitude. According to Dijkstra, “these movements go hand in hand with the graphs that the RIVM or media show daily. When the graph peaks, fear increases, and people become more cautious. When the number of infections decreases, fear decreases.”
The changes are monitored by the Dutch health agency RIVM. “In April and May, support for corona measures was very high,” says RIVM behavioral scientist and professor of Health Psychology, Marijn de Bruin. “In the summer, when many of the measures were relaxed, we saw that the support base decreased slightly. For example, the willingness to keep a distance of 1.5 meters was lowest in June. But now that the infections are increasing, we see that this has increased again to around 90 percent among the participants of a particular study.”
“It’s a living experiment we’re in,” says Agneta Fischer. Her University faculty conducted research into fear and risk perceptions regarding the coronavirus. They found that as the pandemic continued, people became less and less afraid and dared to take more risks.
Nevertheless, the vast majority of the population takes the virus and measures to stop it seriously, according to a questionnaire of the RIVM behavioral unit. Fischer says that “what I see in my own research is that people who are anxious and who agree very much with the measures are also more likely to get angry at people who break the rules. Even if they do it themselves sometimes.”
Will 2021 be better?
How long will we be able to keep this up? “The virus is the problem, but behavior is the solution,” says researcher Marijn de Bruin. “Initially, a lot was communicated about the virus. If we want people to follow the measures, we must not only radiate urgency but also become concrete: what must people do, and especially why. People must be able to understand what they are doing it for. To keep it up.”
Professor Dijkstra approaches 2021 with caution. “Although people mean well, they do not stick to the measures. They do it half-baked. Keeping a distance is also unnatural and extremely difficult. Moreover, the perspective is always shifting: when will we get rid of this?”
And what does that do to our psyche? “People feel socially handicapped,” says Fischer. “We cannot touch, embrace, comfort each other, or go crazy together. That does something to people because we are social animals. For example, if children grow up without social contact, they become disturbed. That contact and physical proximity are gone, which is something we can’t miss for too long.”