COVID-19 & (de)confinement : opinion

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A psychosocial look at the impact of (de)confinement


How can we pursue the common objective of fighting the virus? And how can we imagine adopting "new behaviours" of distancing? Especially pertinent questions when the National Security Council’s recent deconfinement plan had a very significant omission - reunions with family and close friends.

Benoit Dardenne, Professor of Social Psychology, specialised in questions of attitudes, opinions and relationships between groups, looks back on the most recently announced measures. Right from the start of the confinement, with three counterparts from ULB and UCLouvain, he submitted psychosocial recommendations to the scientific committee.

A joint approach by ULiège, ULB and UCLouvain

Among the social and behavioural sciences, research in social psychology holds a body of knowledge on human functioning that can prove invaluable when it comes to dealing with crisis situations. While cases of pandemics have not been specifically examined, and for good reason, there is a great deal of work that can provide some lessons, hence the desire to make these recommendations available to the medical and scientific experts responsible for managing the crisis.

Indeed, relatively early on in the crisis, at the beginning of the confinement, Vincent Yzerbyt (UCLouvain), Laurent Licata (ULB), Olivier Klein (ULB) and Benoit Dardenne (ULiège) mobilised their colleagues to pool the most relevant knowledge on the context. On the strength of these exchanges, they contacted the scientists who were evaluating the public health crisis on a daily basis and sent them a document containing advice and actions to be taken to support citizens in this unprecedented situation on 28th March.

After this first document, three others followed, on 2nd, 7th and 14th April, each carrying messages aimed at enlightening the decision-making process. Although it does not correspond to an official mandate, this offer of service seems to have been appreciated. Starting with a group of a dozen French-speaking Belgian social psychologists, the initiative was joined by their Dutch-speaking academic colleagues. The initiative has also attracted attention abroad, both in France and even in the United States, where the Association for Psychological Science, has published the group's recommendations on its website.

Interview with Benoit Dardenne.

One of the strong ideas that you, as social psychologists, defended was the notion of "collective identity".

We invited the decision makers to build on a central idea: to be effective. Therefore, with confinement being a new situation for everyone, it is key to refer to being part of a collective strategy, in which, without compliance with the rules, there is a strong risk that the effectiveness of the measure will be diminished. Here, citizens had to react as a united group, putting aside their personal interests (age, social class, etc.).

An unnatural approach for human beings?

Human beings define themselves in a very strong way by their social contacts - the social is paramount, and ties are crucial. So, we bet on this very present mechanism - the need to be with others. The great paradox of this situation is that in order to fight against this invisible virus together, we must collectively deprive ourselves of the majority of our social ties. In fact, we talk about "social or physical distancing" all the time, whereas a better term would be "socialising at a distance": it is indeed a question of preserving and nurturing ties, but at a distance.

Have your psycho-social recommendations been followed by the experts and, in turn, by the political authorities?

At the very least, we have been heard.

But I would make a big distinction here between the confinement and the deconfinement.

As far as the confinement was concerned, we were fortunately surprised by the positive reception of our proposals. We had strongly advised the authorities not to dehumanise the crisis, to (re)humanise the numbers, and this did indeed happen.

I should also point out that these recommendations do not stem from our own beliefs, but are what we call "evidence-based practices", i.e. scientific conclusions based on proven empirical research.

What happened to the deconfinement strategy?

Here, on the other hand, it is clear that politics, and indeed politicking, has reared its head again. Those in power have disavowed the group of experts on several points. What’s more, this group of experts does not include any representatives from the social and behavioural sciences, which would have been appropriate given the context.

One of the points of tension on the side of the population seems to be the economic reopening before the reunions with close relatives is allowed. What do you think?

Personally, I wouldn't say that this is a "victory of the economic over the social", as we have heard from some. On the other hand, I deplore the fact that there is a "paternalistic" attitude guiding this decision. What do I mean by this? There will be security guards, cameras in the shops - enough to deter or even punish those who do not respect the rules. The concern is that meetings of a few people are much less "controllable", and so are banned, and this infantilisation creates discomfort. It is always better to give people a sense of responsibility, in order to gain support and respect, and to dialogue with them. We would rather argue for social deconfinement without too much delay, and this is an attitude which is even shared by virologists.

Why is it so essential to see those who matter to us?

The answer is very simple: generally speaking, one of the best predictors of people's health is the quality of their social ties, the social fabric that holds them together. But here, our social connections have been put on hold, and the date of social deconfinement is still in the conditional, which only makes the situation worse.

The situation is unprecedented. We have no point of comparison in terms of analyses in the human and social sciences. What is certain, however, is that, just like the adaptations we are being asked to make - management of (tele)work, family management in isolation, etc. - the drastic reduction in social ties is becoming heavy, difficult and mentally tiring. We must be aware, however, that it is not necessary to see a large number of people to feel good. The basic need is quality relationships with a few people.

The day we are "deconfined", what will be the impact of the new behaviours we have to adopt?

Respecting social distances is not natural, not usual. Human beings are not "programmed" to stay 1.5 metres away from their loved ones. We will have to add vigilance at all times to the mental fatigue that many already feel due to confinement. Strong self-control will be necessary for a series of gestures that are normally harmless.

In the longer term, will we be able to draw positives from this crisis, collectively and socially?

The ideal would be to transform this crisis into an opportunity for change. This is a good time to reflect on what we need to do, on our behaviours, our choices, our movements. We could redefine the priorities of our lives, having been forced to live without a series of things. Family life, work, ways of meeting up, leisure, holidays: we could start a collective reflection to (re)discover and invent new ways of living.

md FacPsy Benoit-Dardenne SBenoît Dardenne is a professor within the Department of Social Psychology at the University of Liège and a member of the PsyNCog faculty research unit, which takes a multidisciplinary approach to the study of human cognition. Specialised in Social Psychology, he also works on environmental psychology issues.

© Photo : Monkey Business Images

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