A swine flu panic has gripped almost the entire Ukrainian society. People are afraid to go out without protective gauze masks; shops and public transport are rife with talk about new instances of the disease, long lines in drugstores, shortage of medicines, and skyrocketing prices for garlic and lemons. Asked what one should do in order not to fall ill, the Ministry of Public Health only says one must take basic precautionary measures. However, this, as well as assurances of national leaders that the situation is under control, does not comfort people. In spite of a stress situation in society, psychologists advise people not to focus all their attention on the epidemic but follow the advice of doctors. The latter claim that human health is 70 percent dependent on the way one psyches themselves up. Olena LISHCHYNSKA, Candidate of Sciences (Psychology), senior research associate at the Institute of Social and Political Psychology of Ukraine’s Academy of Pedagogical Sciences, has told The Day about how one should seek psychological balance and combat panic.
How would you characterize the current psychological condition of society? Are we really panic-stricken?
“Indeed, our society is panic-stricken now. We are shunning each other on the street. Maybe, it is also the effect of an extremely difficult life in a megalopolis, and the current situation is a toughness-training session for all Kyivites. On the other hand, panic is bringing us closer to each other, and we begin to share the same viewpoints on certain issues. We sympathize with the people whose family members are down with flu, but as for the others, they should not worry too much but adequately perceive all information from the media and national leaders and take gossips with a pinch of salt.
“You must have noticed that people who have a cold just cannot be found on the street. I can remember our tradition when employers, businessmen, and private entrepreneurs would deny their employees a sick leave during a seasonal outbreak of flu. It means that the current situation is instructive for all of us, because we become more aware of danger. Every outbreak of flu produced complications; every time people would die of it, albeit not to this extent, but today’s situation really shows that one should take more care of oneself and value one’s health. So this is a chance to reconsider one’s attitude to health and other life values. Employers no longer call to work even those who have a trivial cold, for they are aware of the danger to themselves and others. There are various critical situations in life; they make society think, draw certain conclusions, and learn lessons, one of which we are doing now.”
How successfully do you think we are learning it?
“Everybody decides it individually. That people are not embarrassed to wear masks is a plus: I know that in case of occupational intoxication, when people may be spreading some poisonous chemicals, they will feel ashamed to put on a mask. Now they are not ashamed to do so, which means that they respond adequately to the situation and care about their own safety. As for increased prices for garlic and onions, I can make a conclusion, as a mass psychology expert, that when a certain disaster occurs, people display their worst qualities. In other words, panic actuates the worst, not the best, human features. Last Friday I saw price tags being changed – for higher-price ones, of course, – in a drugstore. Is this part of our mentality? Drugstores are going to gain in any case now, so why should they raise prices? Watching the particularities of mentality and human behavior in a critical situation, we can see that a tense emotional field is only increasing and affecting everybody. We can all be so nervous that we sometimes irritate the others. But, on the other hand, when there is an epidemic in the country, one must get nervous because this forces one to do something.”
Some link the outbreak of flu with politics: certain forces may take advantage of this and thwart the election campaign.
“There has always been politics: it is a dynamic and lively game all over the world. Obviously, political players are trying to turn the various events that take place in society to their advantage. If everybody is well, some may seize this opportunity and say: see how good things are here. But if someone is sick, they will say: look how bad the government is, and then someone may emerge and save The Day. Accordingly, this person will be more often shown on television and quoted in the press. Yet a lot depends on how Ukrainians themselves will interpret such reactions of the government or the opposition.”
There are so many rumors and myths about what exactly people have died of: is it flu, an atypical pneumonia, or some other virus? Does this mean public mistrust towards doctors who are still trying to persuade the populace that there is no plague in Ukraine and nobody is going to spray the air in Kyiv and other cities?
“The trouble is that we were born and raised in the Soviet Union. I still remember my first shock when an accident occurred at the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant: I heard one thing on the radio and altogether different instructions at my workplace. The entire city of Kyiv came out to have fun when something close to an atom bomb had exploded 90 kilometers to the north. The older generation remembers it very well. Today’s situation is even more interesting. The question of professional credibility is in Ukraine at the level of an Asian or African country. There was a high-profile scandals recently about the allegedly fake university diploma of a top executive of Ukraine’s Security Service. It turned out later that some of the specialist at a nuclear power plant also has a similar bogus document. So the current myths in Ukraine are just common grapevine gossip. There are real-life precedents when unprofessional people fail to perform their proper functions. So it would be wrong to suggest that people are panicking for no particular reason and are saying nonsense.”
Quarantine has been imposed in nine regions of Ukraine. What impact may this have on the psychological condition of the populace?
“In my view, it is a very strong measure, because this may adversely affect many people who have nothing to do with this – they will be unable to work normally for a long time. Hence, they will not be paid, which will only exacerbate the problem. On the other hand, this problem cannot be solved unless stern measures are taken. Our chief trouble is that we question the justifiability of the steps our national leadership is taking. People are not against being restricted in something, but it is important that there should be no ill-considered steps that will only irk the populace.”
Is there at least something positive in the current situation?
“We are now overwhelmed with emotions, so we must make a strenuous effort to regain a rational posture and say to ourselves in no uncertain terms: yes, somebody has died today, but I am safe and sound; there are outbreaks of flu every year, and whoever has weak immunity will suffer more than the others. One must read information about normal and adequate things and follow doctors’ advice. One should understand that all people laid up with seasonal flu will be treated for this and will not spread infection. If one has an opportunity to stay home, perhaps with their children, they can use this time for in-family communication and leisure or for self-development, such as reading, etc. One can also try to implement some long-postponed plans and ideas. We must live a healthy way of life, keep up immunity, and not to give in to mass panic because any black streak is followed by a white one.”