On the morning of the 17th of March, I went to a nearby supermarket to buy a few things we’re running low on. The night before, the prime minister had announced that starting on the 18th, Malaysia would be placed under movement control, and although we already have been stocking up on some essential items, we thought it would be a good idea to get some fresh food, just in case they would be hard to come by in the future.
The roads leading to the supermarket were eerily silent. They weren’t completely empty but for a Tuesday morning, there usually would be a lot more traffic especially on the main road. As I approached the supermarket however, I began to see some of cars slowly building up a mini traffic jam but it was nothing compared to what greeted me next.
The moment I walked through the glass door, I found the supermarket to be absolutely crowded. Trying to make your way from one end of the supermarket to the other was a complete obstacle course. People of all ages were clearing out already bare shelves. Elderly couples and families with young kids are standing shoulder to shoulder, snaking their way into the cashier queue which have stretched all the way to the entrance. And although I’ve decided that the grocery is not worth spending any more time than I need to in the mini mass gathering, I still had to worm my way between the crowd just to make an exit, trying in vain not to touch anyone.
Back at home, we hear about similar events taking place all over Malaysia. People are rushing into stores in a manic frenzy and families are frantically packing to escape the city. Instructions on precautionary measures like staying at home, standing a metre away from each other or just frequent hand washing are nothing but hazy recollections at the back of one’s head, blocked by a more urgent sense of impending doom. The people’s underappreciated freedom to do whatever they please have now been revoked and that have placed everyone into a state of uncertainty, confusion and fear. And as varied as the colours of people who walk this Earth, so are their reactions to their fears.
The Need to Act
For most of us, fear drives us into immediate action. We are plagued by a sense of restlessness and helplessness, propelling us into doing simply anything to ease our discomfort. It doesn’t matter if we know which mask to get, how a mask even works against infection or how to use it best; we simply buy them by the dozens. It doesn’t matter that proper hand cleaning with soap and water is the best way to prevent the virus from spreading through contact, we’ll just get bottles of hand sanitizer because it seems much more medical.
This is partly why people are buying seemingly irrational things too. After news of the toilet paper robberies in Hong Kong and Australia spread through the social media, people all over the world are buying rolls and rolls of toilet paper. Fueled by FOMO (or the Fear Of Missing Out) and the shock at such desperate an act, even those who usually don’t use toilet paper are now asking themselves “Should I get one too? Or perhaps a few, just in case?”
Similarly, it is the reason why people are leaving their homes in droves in a search for a ‘safer’ place. The availability of good facility in major hospitals has given the appearance that these cities have high number of cases and those seeking assurance assume that it would be safer for them to stay away.
For others, the thought of living far apart at a time of crisis is too much to bear even in the age of instant communication. Their sleeps are disturbed by the thoughts of loved ones dying far away from them and they want to be together for each other. The unseen risk of them being the catalyst for spreading the disease seems negligible in compared to these more imminent fears.
State of Denial
Another common reaction to fear is to rebel against it as the thought of being weak is too uncomfortable for us to deal with. Instead of admitting to ourselves that there is a problem which they have to face, we would rather tell ourselves that everything is okay. And the harder the world tries to force us into believing that something is definitely wrong, the more inclined we are to not face it. Suddenly, the thought of staying at home is giving us the heebie-jeebies even though we could spend hours on the game console without a word of complain.
To others, this denial may be more subtle. They are consciously aware and admit that it is a time of crisis, but to actually live in a way which reflects that is so unbearably uncomfortable. It is similar to the actions of a heavy smoker who, deep inside, do feel the need to cut down a few packs, but would rather just not think about it and keep smoking.
Is It All Fear Though?
Of course, humans are much more complex and no matter how much we try to dissect each other, we would never be able to even begin comprehend the whole truth. There are lots of different factors that affect our actions in all situations. However, humans are social beings and in a society, emotions can be just as contagious, or even more so, than the virus that threatens our lives.
And fear itself is a very powerful emotion that had been hardwired in the brains of all creatures to ensure their survival. We often hear amazing things one could do in the midst of an adrenaline rush. At the same time, fear can cause you to do something that you would regret as it often only cares about your short term survival. And at a time of crisis, even those who generally have a good hold on their fears are now being affected by the accumulated anxiety of the whole population that surrounds them.
So What Do We Do?
Fear often cause the steadiest of people to act on their impulse. It comes with a sense of urgency that demands immediate action. Especially at a time like this, it is wise to practice a bit of mindfulness and self awareness as a tool to help us make wiser actions. Keep checking in with yourself and ask yourselves questions like “What is the reason behind my action? How am I feeling and how is it affecting me? Do I really need to do this or would it harm other people? Based on my beliefs, what is best thing that I could do right now?”
By being more in tune with your values, your actions would bring a more permanent sense of satisfaction rather than the quick bites of temporary relief that would simply lead to another round of panic. And by constantly checking in with your emotions, you would be more sensitive to the irrational urges that may cause you to do something that you will later regret. The more control we have over ourselves, the less burden we will put on all of the healthcare workers and members of the public service who are racing against the clock to save lives.
On top of that, keep yourself informed with current updates from reputable sources that would help you prepare yourself for what is to come. Pay attention to and carry out the precautionary measures given by the authorities so you could tell yourself honestly that you have tried what you could to protect yourself, your family, your friends and your community.
Be patient and be calm. Insya Allah, if we all work together, by His help and guidance, we will get through this.