Denials and ignorance in the time of a pandemic

Professor Renata Salecl, Professor of Psychology, Psychoanalysis and Law, explores how and why people react to COVID-19 with denial and ignorance.

Ignorance is often understood in a negative way, which is why we can easily accuse others of it while we rarely admit our ignorance. Most often, ignorance is understood not only as a lack of knowledge but primarily as a lack of the desire to know. However, psychoanalysts have observed that people might very well have a desire to know, but then do everything not to come close to the core of their suffering.

In politics, ignorance is often intentional or even strategic. At the start of the pandemic, many world leaders employed such deliberate strategies of ignorance. It was not so much that they did not know about the dangers of the novel coronavirus; they downplayed the pandemic for political and economic reasons.

In their private lives, people adopt their own types of denial. These denials are not so different from the types of denials that were studied in the 1980s by the Israeli psychologist Shlomo Breznitz, who questioned how people deal with potentially life-threatening health situations. Breznitz observed that many people who survived a heart attack did not think that they could suffer its repeat, even if they learned that others with a similar condition did. Denials helped people to feel confident in their wellbeing, and people often went from one form of denial to another. Altogether, Breznitz observed seven different kinds of denials among the patients he studied. One form of denial was that people felt that what happened to others cannot happen to them. Another involved a lack of urgency – when people experienced worsening of their health, they delayed seeking help. Still, another form of denial was a denial of vulnerability, when people felt that they were somehow protected from the illness because of their presumably healthy lifestyle. One of the forms of denial was the perception that illness is just luck, fate, or destiny. Moreover, while some people denied effects related to their condition or have invented an appeasing explanation for their anxiety provoked by their near-death experiences, others denied the information regarding their health. However, the most severe cases of denial included delusions, which meant that people created an explanation for their condition that was far away from reality.

With people who deny COVID-19, one can also observe how they often go through similar types of denials. Some people behave as if the novel coronavirus is of no personal relevance and that infections affect only other people. Even when already infected, some deny the urgency of the situation and do not seek medical treatment when their symptoms worsen. Many people who deny that the novel coronavirus can affect them, similarly to Breznitz’s patients, harbor illusions that they are somehow protected from getting infected because of their healthy lifestyle or even good genes. Some people take infection as merely a matter of luck or destiny. Overwhelmingly present are denials linked to people blocking unpleasant information or pushing aside their emotions related to the pandemic. Furthermore, with the continuation of the pandemic, psychiatrists are also observing delusional thinking. Some people are even developing particular COVID-19 related delusions.

Medicine often does not pay enough attention to people’s denial of illness as epidemiology says little about how ignorance and denial are played out in times of a pandemic. Now that so many countries are going through the second wave of the pandemic, many people are fatigued by it and are not willing to follow often erratic measures governments are proposing to limit the spread of the virus. While on the one hand, people need to deal with the conflicting messages about how to protect themselves and others from the infection, on the other hand, they have to deal with the emotions the pandemic is provoking. When dealing with something traumatic, anxiety-provoking or hard to grasp, people often embrace ignorance and denial, instead of knowledge and facts.

The pandemic has taught us the importance of acknowledging the unknown. As Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States said, “He who knows, knows how little he knows.” One cannot imagine that today’s world leaders would utter something like this. Although, as German politician and epidemiologist Karl Lauterbach recently reminded us in The Guardian: “Uncertainty and doubt are not a disgrace for scientists or politicians at this time. What is disgraceful is excessive self-confidence, self-righteousness or dishonesty towards fellow human beings.”

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