Public health emergencies have been demonstrated to have an impact on the behavioural health of the affected population. The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) disease, which originated in China at the end of 2019, has gained intense attention nationwide and globally. Star Health recently interviewed Shamim Ahmed, who is a doctoral researcher on social and behavioural health sciences at the University of Toronto, Canada. His expertise is to evaluate human psychology based on social determinants of health. He has been closely observing the socio-cultural aspects of coronavirus and its possible impact on human behaviour.
Star Health: What do you think are the major concerns regarding the outbreak of coronavirus in Bangladesh?
Shamim Ahmed: This is first time in many years that most of the people in the world are on the same boat because of this deadly virus. You must have seen that the mortality rate of this disease is still pacing slow, which is less than 4%. However, as the affected population is not confined in a particular area and the disease is already declared to be a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the total number of deaths at the end of this devastating phase might be enormous. However, whatever the mortality rate is, this disease has particular impact on some behavioural aspects of human psychology and that differs in different societies based on their cultural and social values.
Star Health: Can you give us an example of the effect of this pandemic in behavioural aspects?
Shamim Ahmed: For example, consider the "panic buying" situation worldwide. People have become concerned about their future and possible lockdown situation; therefore, they have started stockpiling necessary goods.
If you look at the market of USA, UK or Canada, you will see people are buying toilet papers, tissues and canned foods at large numbers, whereas, people in south-east Asia are buying rice, oil, lentils, potatoes, biscuits, puffed rice etc. Nevertheless, some people in Bangladesh are also buying toilet papers, although that is not relevant in our context.
However, because of the global connectivity among citizens through social media, this is happening as an outcome of 'online peer pressure'. This is called as 'irrational panic buying' in social theories of health.
Star Health: What are the issues that should be of concern in the coming days?
Shamim Ahmed: There is no effective treatment available for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as of today. We know some human trials of vaccine has just been started, but to make it available for all, is a long journey and we just cannot wait for that. Therefore, currently the key major intervention to prevent COVID-19 is to ensure social isolation and maintaining hygienic behaviour.
I think people may be fairly aware of handwashing practices due to the various social and behaviour change interventions of the government and non-government organisations, but 'social isolation' in Bangladeshi culture is extremely difficult. My anticipation is that at a certain stage, lockdown measure may just be necessary; and people might get frustrated and mentally unwell due to these changes in their lifestyles.
Star Health: What will be your suggestion in such a scenario?
Shamim Ahmed: It is absolutely necessary to develop affirmative messages for people to follow. Instead of saying "if you go out and mix with people, you will be punished", it should be said "going out and social mixing might put your child's life in danger. Stay home".
So, developing such positive messages require specific knowledge and expertise. Government and development partners need to ensure they appoint the right people who are experts of social and behavioural health, to develop campaigns and programmes that will be welcomed by people in Bangladesh's cultural context.
Star Health: Thank you for your time.
Shamim Ahmed: Thank you and stay safe.