Researchers propose new term to account for psychological impact of COVID-19 pandemic

December 16, 2020

A mural on a street in London. (Photo by Edward Howell on Unsplash)

The physical and mental threat of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its similarities to the threat of terrorism have led two researchers to call for a new term, “viruism,” to describe the widespread fear that a global health crisis can generate.

In a commentary published in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy in late November, Inna Levy of Ariel University and Zefat Academic College and Keren Cohen-Louck of Ariel University argue that adopting such a term may assist in how society is able to cope with the continued threat of the pandemic. Viruism itself refers to “pandemic-related victimization” and an “array of physical, economic, psychological, and social consequences of pandemics,” Levy said.

The paper draws several parallels between living amid the threat of the pandemic and the threat of terrorism. As the researchers themselves live in Israel, which Levy described as being in “a state of chronic terrorism,” they saw the fears of the virus and of terrorism as being similar. 

“We recognized that our feelings and fears about COVID-19 are similar to those about terrorism and wars,” Levy said. “Since the term pandemic addresses the physical aspects of viral diseases, such as the transmissibility, spread, etc., we decided to develop this new term to address the multidimensional nature of pandemic-related victimization and its negative psychological and social impact.”

While there is a sense of widespread fear of both terrorism and viral pandemics, the statistical likelihood of becoming a victim of either is very low, Levy said. However, both terrorism and viruism have a severe negative impact on global economies, and both evoke significant emotional responses.

“Both terrorism and viruism evoke a high level of public fears and lead to such emotional reactions as anxiety, stress and depression,” Levy said.

The term viruism will help put the current COVID-19 crisis in a more global historical perspective, the researchers said, with Levy noting that even within recent years there have been other viral outbreaks that have evoked similar psychological responses on a smaller scale. Widespread adoption of the terminology would better allow “researchers and practitioners to learn from past pandemics and prepare for future pandemics,” Levy said.

“It may seem like a simple process of ‘naming,’ but naming, creating terminology is one of the crucial aspects of coping with social problems,” Levy said. “By naming issues, we can facilitate a broader perspective and more effective coping.”

As for what people can do to try to mitigate the fear created by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic or by viruism at large, Levy said that reducing media consumption related to COVID-19 is a good first step, especially since other studies have shown a strong correlation between disaster-related media intake and a rise in depression and anxiety.

“It is enough to get one update. There is no need to know how many died and got sick each day,” Levy said. “Personally, each time I watch the news, I can feel my levels of anxiety rise.”

The commentary, “Viruism: The Need for a New Term Describing COVID-19 Impact in Context of Viral Victimization” was published on Nov. 30 in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. It was authored by Keren Cohen-Louck of Ariel University and Inna Levy of Ariel University and Zefat Academic College.

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