As COVID-19 triggers the survival instinct, reckless decisions may result


When a Quebec couple recently traveled to the Yukon to escape the new coronavirus, only to be turned away, it seemed like a classic case of panic caused by a pandemic.

But while this is an extreme example, experts say that the daily assault of information about COVID-19 can skew people’s estimation of the risk the virus poses to them, which leads to both good and bad behavior.

Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation in Old Crow, Yukon, told The Canadian Press that when the Quebec couple got off the plane on March 27, they expressed “palpable” fear of the pandemic.

He said he told the couple that he had not identified that Old Crow could not house newcomers who could spread the virus among its 250 residents – and then sent them baggage.

According to Ross Otto, a professor of psychology at McGill University, there is a well-established psychological principle that could explain the couple’s decision to flee north.

In the early 1970s, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman postulated that humans have a hard time estimating the probability of something happening to them because they are influenced by examples that come to mind.

People may overestimate their chances of dying from terrorism, for example, because of the frequency with which this type of violence is reported. And, Otto said, they may underestimate their chances of dying from more common – but less talked about – causes like bowel cancer.

Today, there is such a deluge of information about COVID-19 infections and deaths that “people will overestimate or overestimate their own chances of dying from coronavirus-related causes,” Otto suggests.

In some cases, this will prompt people to flee to remote areas and put others in danger, accumulate toilet paper, or behave in an ethically questionable manner. But, Otto said, this distorted judgment can really help society by facilitating self-isolation behavior.

The fear of death caused by photos of coffins in Italy and stories of doctors rationing ventilators can make even the most selfish person act for the benefit of the greater good.

“The more you fear death, the more it is up to you to isolate yourself,” he said. And the more people isolated, the less the virus will spread.

In the most remote corners of Quebec, authorities began last month to worry about an influx of city dwellers fleeing the hot spots of coronaviruses.

“We have started to hear more and more about owners of Montreal, chalets in this sector and Gaspé, who had already come to the regions to isolate themselves from COVID,” said Marc Parent, mayor, in a recent press release. from Rimouski, Quebec. interview. “And we have heard of hotels that have started to receive travelers from the Montreal area … It has started to worry people. “

Parents of public health in eastern Quebec have therefore asked the province to block access to their towns and villages.

On March 28, the Quebec government ordered the police to set up checkpoints, severely restricting access to eight remote regions, including Bas-Saint-Laurent, where Rimouski is located. Last week, the province extended the restrictions, banning non-essential travel to a large portion of the cottages north of Montreal and Charlevoix, northeast of Quebec.

Dr. Natasha Crowcroft, a public health expert at the University of Toronto, said that the pandemic could trigger people’s survival instincts, pushing them to flee the virus. But, she added, it is up to the authorities to reinforce the message that the home is the safest place.

Also, she said, unless someone is already living off the land and self-sufficient, leaving a city to escape a fast-spreading virus may not be the smartest thing to do. make.

People fleeing urban centers are still at risk of becoming infected, but with fewer health care resources to help them, she said, “The idea that fear distorts people’s risk assessment is really important. “

Most public health messages to date have been to keep Canadians at home for civic duty, she noted. A more effective approach, said Crowcroft, would be to appeal to “the idea that people are afraid of things they don’t understand, and that the home is a familiar place … it’s a safe place.” “

Returning to Old Crow, Tizya-Tramm stated that the couple, who they believed were in their late 20s or early 30s, had arrived neither with a place to stay nor in appropriate attire for the weather.

“He didn’t even have mittens,” said the chef last week. “He’s minus 30 here today. “

Otto and his colleagues at McGill are conducting research to determine whether people’s cognitive functions are negatively affected by the virus. He said he wondered if the panic caused by COVID-19 could cause excessive rumination or a response to stress, which he said is likely to disrupt higher-order cognitive functions.

“So the simple question you can ask is, are people just getting dumber right now because they don’t have the bandwidth or the capacity to actually do what they need?” ” he said.

Mathieu Montaroux, the founder of Quebec Preppers, a website dedicated to helping people prepare for unforeseen events such as floods and fires, said that the good reflex during a pandemic is to stay put “rather than run left and right ”.

Its website saw traffic drop from an average of 15,000 monthly visits to 41,000 in March. He and his preparer colleagues did not wait for the government to order people to isolate themselves.

“Myself and others who had planned well were already limiting our trips and we already had our homes filled with everything we needed,” he said in a recent interview.

“If people had been prepared – and had the right reflexes – they would have done it too. “

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on April 6, 2020.

– With files from Dirk Meissner


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