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Chaffee County residents often point to the welcoming nature of this county to visitors from outside as a sign of the strong sense of community that exists here. Most people have responded to the coronavirus pandemic known as COVID-19 by pulling together, exhibiting the very best of human nature. But it appears that the continued threat is revealing another nationwide undercurrent to which the county is not immune: the spread of some of the worst human characteristics.

In the past few weeks, Ark Valley Voice has received communications from some residents and a business executive, who asked to remain anonymous, that paint a picture of hostile phone calls, name-calling by some waiting in line to safely enter grocery stores, epitaphs hurled at cars going by with out-of-state license plates, “tattling” on neighbors who appear to break the rules, and trailheads filled to overflowing with cars with out-of-state license plates, triggering a verbal confrontation.

Experts say that this hostility has several sources, stemming, not just from cabin fever, but from anxiety, and fear due to the physical risks and the uncertainty of the situation, There is also the very real economic impact on small businesses, individual families and the community as a whole, that is taking a psychological toll with both a short-term and long-term impact.

Part of what takes such a big mental health toll during a pandemic is that it goes against the primal human social instinct to seek comfort from a larger group — be it family, friends, neighbors, or co-workers.

According to a recent NBC News story, in post-9/11 New York City, many residents leaned on a shared sense of experience and community to process an unprecedented attack. But this time around the situation is different. Instead of solidarity, it is far too easy now to feel uneasy; to view a fellow New Yorker as a potential coronavirus carrier or a rival for that last bottle of hand sanitizer on a store shelf.

Image by Moose. Pexal Images.

“Anger and blame and feeling anxious are understandable, if not acceptable reactions to people who you view aren’t properly social distancing or aren’t taking the situation seriously. According to a recent Washington Post poll, stress crosses the social divide. In late March, even before coronavirus infections had topped 1 million people worldwide, 77 percent of American women and 61 percent of men were reporting personal stress, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll. Sixty-nine percent of Americans were worried about themselves or their family members becoming infected, and a majority thought the economic impact could be worse or the same as the 2008 Great Recession.

The mantra of the pandemic has become “We’re all in this together”, but social distancing may be impacting community empathy. In fact, experts say that what is happening is that our behavior immune system might actually be changing. According to the BBC, fears of contagion appear to be leading us to become more conformist and less accepting of eccentricity. That fear can make our moral judgments harsher.

“The same logic may explain why we become more morally vigilant in an outbreak. Studies have shown that when we fear contagion, we tend to be harsher when judging a breach of loyalty (such as an employee who badmouths his company) or when we see someone who fails to respect authority (such as the grocery worker charged with grocery door duty limiting the number of people in the store). Breaking these standards could be a signal that they may break other more relevant rules that are there to keep disease at bay.

An NBC News analysis of the White House COVID-19 press briefings showed that in more than 13 hours of talking during those briefings last week, President Donald Trump spent a mere 4.5 minutes expressing empathy for those who perished from COVID-19. With so little empathy coming from the nation’s president, the stage is set for people to act badly, right down to the local level.

“People have been horrible on the phone to my service people,” said one local business executive. “We’re a critical service, we are here to serve people, and they call and yell at them. I’m worried I’m going to lose my people. We can’t help the situation, we’re trying to help them.”


Social distancing comes with psychological fallout

With calls and texts to mental health hotlines dramatically on the rise, it isn’t just isolation, it is a shorter fuse that should concern each of us. Frustration over events we can’t change, combined with real fear and cabin fever, may be contributing to the irritability and anger. This fraying of behavior could be seen in people’s personal interactions and behavior in public.

“The pandemic has shown us the value that front-line, essential workers bring to the table, and the lack of respect many of us (who are not “traditional” front-line like first responders/healthcare workers) get in return,” said another unnamed Chaffee County source. “We are grateful that we still have jobs to go to each day, but the emotional toll being exacted by hostile customers is exhausting.”

Experts are increasingly worried about our mental health, as many of us try to adjust to “the new normal.”

A recent review article aiming to predict how we might fare looked at the psychological impact of previous periods of quarantine due to infectious diseases. These included diseases caused by other coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS, as well as other infectious diseases like Ebola. The analysis combined data from 24 research papers and found that many of the studies reported negative psychological effects such as anxiety, confusion, insomnia, anger, and post-traumatic stress symptoms.

“The reason we experience fear and anxiety is that our brains evolved to notice and pay attention to threats,” said Dr. Lauren Hallion, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. “In prehistoric times, those threats were sometimes predators, but they were sometimes diseases and viruses like the one we’re experiencing now. If your brain is afraid and doesn’t want to let you pay attention to anything but coronavirus (COVID-19), it is doing exactly what it is supposed to do to keep you, your loved ones, and your community safe,” said Hallion.

The accessibility and anonymity of social media does not help the situation, bringing bad behavior right down to the local level. “People say the darndest things on social media – name-calling, accusations — that they never would in public,” said one local resident who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution. “You just wish at a time like this people would be kinder to each other.”

Image credit: The peril of social isolation is real. Image by Thrive Global.