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10 Problematic Types of Thinking That Have Hampered Our Response to COVID-19

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It is perhaps human nature to be underprepared for threats that do not occur frequently.  My hope is that we can learn some lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic that we apparently did not learn from pandemics past. Below are some types of thinking that I feel have hampered our response to COVID-19.

1. Political thinking.

I can understand why some people are viewing the pandemic through a political lens when from the start, elected officials were making policy decisions about the pandemic.  Most politicians are not experienced in public health, yet the policies they set in place have huge public health implications as well as an effect on all other aspects of our lives.  Confounding the issue is that elected officials need to get voted in, which means they need to appeal to a wide group of voters who are also usually not experienced in the areas of public health, epidemiology, or infectious disease.  So it’s really not surprising that not all policy positions have been winning ones.  However, when we view the pandemic as a political issue only, we lose sight of the fact that it is an actual health issue.

2. Magical thinking.

Magical thinking can be great fun for children and adults alike.  Fairies, the Easter bunny, Santa, and Bigfoot are all things that can make us smile.  In real life, behaving as though we have been sprinkled with magical fairy dust and that no harm could ever come to us is simply not helpful.

None of us are immortal, and all of us can face health issues.  Some people like to think of sad stories they see on the news as “other” people. People who are somehow different from us, the blessed and protected folks. One of my doctors explained to me that she always knew that she could die, and that bad things could happen even to her. When you internally acknowledge that you are not any more special than everyone else, you can learn from the experiences of others and try to take concrete actions to avoid the same fate they suffered. Simply put, when you face reality, you are more likely to embrace prevention.

3. Religious thinking.

Religion and spirituality are a great help to many people.  Unfortunately, religion can also be harmful at times.  Religious wars and cults are examples of religious thinking gone wrong.  Another time it can be harmful is if it leads you to act in reckless or harmful ways because you have faith you will be protected from harm.  I am a believer in God helping those who help themselves.  If we take actions that are more likely to have good outcomes and we have faith, that is a most winning combination.  I also feel that God made some people very smart and very exceptional to help us as a whole.  We have amazing innovations and medical care because of the minority of the human race who are exceptional.  I am glad to benefit from the experts among us, and I don’t think religion has to mean total rejection of science and technology.

4. Ableist thinking.

There is a divide between the healthy and the sick.  When you are born healthy and nothing has gone wrong for you healthwise yet, it is hard to picture what it is actually like to be disabled. I was born without a whole immune system.  I have had trouble fighting simple infections, and I have seen patients like me of all ages lose their battles with my disease or live with the consequences of organ damage from infection.  It’s not a far stretch for me to envision dying, being on a ventilator, or having long COVID.  It is a longer stretch for those of you who have not walked in my shoes.  However, just because you were born healthy or are young, that is no guarantee that you are going to stay that way.  Please don’t think of yourself or those around you as being above having chronic illness or disability.  It literally can happen to anyone at any time.

5. Conspiracy thinking.

When things go wrong and when people are fearful, some turn to conspiracies.  This provides a way of looking at things that may feel safer and may provide the community support of like-minded conspiracy thinkers.   There is real-life harm that can come from denying reality.  When you are not facing reality, you may make poor choices which can lead to worse outcomes.  When it counts, face reality head-on.

6. Denial.

Denial is a popular coping mechanism.  If you deny that something is happening, you don’t have to deal with it.  Unfortunately, denial leads to bad choices, which ultimately may lead to worse outcomes.  Facing reality is often the easier path to take.

7. Of-the-moment thinking.

Some people haven’t learned to delay gratification.  When I was little, my mom brought me to a department store and said that she could afford to buy me a black-and-white television that day, or I could put a color television on layaway and I would get it in 12 weeks.  I chose the color television.  I delayed getting what I wanted that day for a better item in the future.  During the pandemic, I have seen people risk their future to have fun today.  It’s good to keep a balance and have some empathy for your future self.  Is a poorly- ventilated gathering today worth dealing with a health issue in your future? The ability to care about both the present and our future is important.  If you plan on maybe being alive in the future, you want to consider your future health in the actions and inactions you are taking right now. What you do today may very well have a direct impact on your future.

8. Selfish thinking.

Just because you are super healthy and are sure COVID is no big deal for you, that does not make it true for everyone.  Nearly every person has someone in their life who may be considered at high risk for this virus.  Show some empathy for other people who want to survive and thrive just as much as you do but are facing additional challenges.   The disrespect shown toward many disabled people and people with medical conditions during the pandemic is not a good look, and it does not speak well for the people acting that way.

9. Overconfident thinking.

Overconfidence can kill.  People thinking they are immune and thinking they have all the answers have been very detrimental to the cause of preventing illness.  Simply acknowledging the complexities, and knowing that we don’t know it all, that we don’t have everything under control yet is humbling and makes people more likely to take reasonable precautions given our situation.

10. Mistrustful thinking.

Not trusting any experts is not healthy.  We need some trust and respect for people to work together and to have a shared reality.  Without a little trust, things fall apart.  The pandemic has highlighted the need for everyone to have a doctor they trust and to have the ability to tell trusted sources of information from less trustworthy ones.  When people don’t know who to turn to, they can fall for anything or end up listening to no one.

The above list covers some of the pitfalls I have witnessed during the pandemic.  I am sharing them not to be critical or argue, but in the hopes that we can avoid some of these very human pitfalls in the future and become more resilient.  I think we owe it to everyone who has suffered to try.

Getty image by Blackjack 3D.

Originally published: July 6, 2022
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