Commentary: Flaring tempers and public incidents – are we losing it because of COVID-19?
Temperatures are rising as fresh public incidents show both people losing their cool and netizens losing their patience with those who may be flouting the law. A psychology lecturer from SUSS explains what’s behind it.
SINGAPORE: COVID-19 has robbed us of our sense of control.
We have had to adapt to changes forced upon us. From learning how to spend entire days with family to dealing with not seeing family and friends for entire months, to figuring out how to work from home and avoid working non-stop, work and life norms have swung from one pendulum to another.
Then you step outside your house to find a new set of challenges await. This ranges from the logistical (how to take public transport while touching the least possible number of surfaces) to the behavioural (how to keep your distance from people).
Psychologists know this desire to reclaim power over our situations is not new. We have taken actions to manage small incidents of stress in our everyday lives long before the advent of COVID-19.
When I come to a traffic light junction, I press the “green man” button. When I am in a hurry, I unconsciously press it more than once. If I am in a great hurry, I tap on it many times.
I am not entirely sure if the button works. It is probably a placebo button. But pressing it makes me feel better about my waiting. It gives me a comforting sense of control.
But we can’t control the uncle standing too close to us in a hawker centre queue.
Neither can commuters on a MRT train control a 39-year-old maskless man who, in a viral video last weekend, was bent on debating strangers and sharing his personal research on the science of COVID-19 rather than mask up.
The safe distancing ambassador at Lau Pa Sat might not have predicted how people can lose their cool when he confronted groups he suspected of flouting rules.
Online, these two pieces of news have been met with swift condemnation and people calling for harsh punishments – fines, jail and even caning or deportation - to be meted out right away. It seems tempers are flaring all around.
Why are people reacting like that? Are we losing our grip?
While the police investigate the cases that have come to light, we hope justice will be meted out to show violence and flagrant flouting of rules is not acceptable.
THE SAME BOAT, THE SAME GROUP
COVID-19 has imposed greater uncertainty over most parts of our lives. We have also lost control over our fate and our independent selves so it’s little wonder our tempers have grown short and our patience wearing thin.
In order to exit the current COVID-19 measures, return to phase 3 and avoid personal illness, we need others (people, organisations and the Government) to cooperate and make the “right decisions”.
This is our shared fate. Everyone in Singapore is now reluctantly in the same boat and in the same group. We are finding out we need the cooperation of others, including our neighbours, domestic helpers, and the general public around us whom we never had to rely on so critically before for our fate.
The trouble is people enter COVID-19 with diverse values and tolerance levels. And this could explain why some react badly to being confronted.
Our group isn’t from a Hollywood movie script. We are not going to win the basketball tournament or charge forward and overrun the enemy line as one united team.
Our group has probably never been this tested on our social cohesion. We may have differences that span age, race, gender and even nationality, when members comprise those from the Merdeka generation aunties to working adults juggling work and family, to migrant workers.
Our group also has what psychologists call low task cohesion: We don’t fully agree on what needs to be done and how they should be done. For example, some believe that we should close our borders, while some caution against it.
And yet, our group is facing a big challenge in wanting everyone to conform to norms and rules to keep everyone safe. We depend on others to follow the new COVID-19 social norms of mask wearing, maintaining social distance, and avoiding large gatherings.
Group members who commit indiscretions must know they are creating an unequal hierarchy, with themselves at the very top. With offences holding the potential of starting another wave of COVID-19 infections, offenders have unequal power over the fates of law abiding, norm-following members of the group.
A similar rationale applies to netizens condemning these two incidents and calling for punishments to be meted out before justice has a chance to take its course. We need group members to reciprocate. We might think “I hate wearing a mask but I’ve worn one all day. Why can’t these people wear their masks properly too?”
Proponents of harsher actions may see these offenders as group members who violate our social norms and do not match our sacrifices.
(Are COVID-19 vaccines still effective against new variants? And could these increase the risk of reinfection? Experts explain why COVID-19 could become a “chronic problem" on CNA's Heart of the Matter podcast.)
AGGRESSIVE CALLS CAN SPIN OUT OF CONTROL
It is no surprise then to see more reports of aggressive reactions to COVID-19 restrictions on one hand, and calls for stiffer punishments for COVID-19 restriction violations on the other. People are desperate to reclaim personal control.
And attempts to stop them, such as when they go out for a gathering of more than five at Lau Pau Sat, may be met with anger. “Who are you to ask me to listen to you?” shouted a man when his larger-than-five group is confronted by a safe distancing ambassador. Kudos to the ambassador who strove to keep his cool.
Yet let’s not forget sentiments of intolerance can spin out of control quickly. We have witnessed the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes elsewhere in the world.
In Singapore, our anger and frustration with COVID-19 and its outcomes and restrictions can easily morph into xenophobia and the formation of group identities based on adherence to rules.
While not representative of all Singaporeans, social media comments related to foreigners seemingly violating COVID-19 restrictions or entering into Singapore from high-risks countries reveal a deep sense of anti-foreigner sentiments among some in our community.
My research with 280 Singaporeans found that xenophobic fears related to COVID-19, evident through responses to questions such as “If I was in an elevator with a group of foreigners, I’d be worried that they’re infected with the virus”, is only second to danger and contamination fears about COVID-19, evident through responses to questions such as “I am worried that I can’t keep my family safe from the virus”.
These two fears were higher among my Singaporean participants than fears about the socio-economic consequences of COVID-19.
There is a story of how hot water changes things differently, revealing what one could be made of. In hot water, a hard potato softens, an egg is transformed but it’s the coffee bean that changes the hot water.
COVID-19 is that hot water challenging our national character.
It would be tragic if one legacy of COVID-19 is fear, discrimination against foreigners and knee-jerk reactions to cases of infractions.
Dr Victor Seah is a senior lecturer of psychology at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.