Study Highlights the Role of Risk Communication in Coping with COVID-19

Making victory sign during COVID-19 pandemic before takeoff. Courtesy of Zheng Jin

The mental effects of pandemics on people can arise not only from the burden of preventive measures, the fear of contracting and cure but also coping with the exponential deaths. It was predicted in 2018 that the next major outbreak and its containment challenges might not be due to a lack of preventive technologies but to emotional contagion, which could erode trust in government, causing serious economic and social disruption. It is thus crucial to understand the relationship between risk communication and psychological responses especially in the ascending phase of pandemic, at which public emotions and behaviors in response to the epidemic change rapidly. In it is in this vein that, psychologists at the International Joint Laboratory of Cognitive and Behavioural Scienc (iLCBC) at Zhengzhou Normal University have carried a research on the relationship between psychological responses and risk communication during the early phase of COVID-19 pandemic to answer the following questions: What is the public reaction to epidemic outbreaks in the early phase? How does the effective exchange of real-time risk information impact them over time? What are the characteristics of these effects under different risk intensities?

Data were collected from Jan 26, 2020 (at which time 30 Provinces launched the First-level response to major public health emergencies in China, 56 deaths had occurred, and 2,014 cases were confirmed worldwide) until Feb. 17, 2020 (1,775 deaths and 71,429 confirmed cases worldwide) with the mean test-retest interval of 16 days, by inviting community residents from two provincial capitals: Wuhan and Zhengzhou.

The findings of the study showed that risk communication in the initial stage of the outbreak mitigated the susceptibility to emotional contagion, and that this interaction had a larger influence on the epidemic frontline (i.e., Wuhan). Furthermore, prevention activities were predicted by the quality of risk communication, suggesting that preventive behaviors taken were closely linked to the efficient and timely transmission of information related to the epidemic. While researchers have found that effective risk communication may reduce susceptibility to emotional contagion and is a significant means of alleviating public anxiety, it has shown some inconsistencies to previous findings in that there is a reciprocal correlation between anxiety and risk communication, which means that the emotional component may build resistance to risk communication.

In January 2020, Wuhan became the battlefront in the fight against COVID-19 and was the focus of global attention. The data provides some of the first follow-up records regarding mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak. According to Dr. Zheng Jin, Director of the iLCBC, "Officials trying to circumvent chaos or panic by withholding information are more harmful than the public behaving irrationally in a public health emergency" he says, "Pre-crisis planning is expected to create a transparent, open and honest flow of information."

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