How Has Covid-19 Changed Mind-sets and Behaviours?

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AN END. The global population is anxious for a resolution to what has been a nightmare of a year so far. But as much as we look forward to a medical ending, i.e. when a vaccine for Covid-19 is finally – and triumphantly – discovered, what we truly crave for is the social ending, i.e. when widespread fear of Covid-19 wanes and we learn to live with the virus.

Collectively, our programmed behaviours and the routines we keep have had to undergo profound – and undesirable – changes; and the resultant effect is the slow and sometimes, painful erosion of our mental well-being.

Aerial view of Lebuh Armenian during the MCO.

Still, better days are coming. Penang has recorded zero active cases since the last two back in April. Steadied by the news and with careful optimism, the state and federal governments have relaxed certain restrictions, e.g. dine-ins are now allowed; swimming pools, gyms and cinemas have reopened; interstate travel bans have been lifted as is the continuation of religious activities – all of which are to be done with strict compliance to the SOPs and safety measures in place, or you run the risk of being compounded or taken to court and punished with a maximum fine of RM1,000 and up to six months’ jail under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Act 1988 (Act 342).1

Last June, Penang Monthly ran an online survey to find out how Penangites had been faring under the various phases of the Movement Control Order (MCO). Answers were collected from 380 respondents and yielded the following results:

Monkey See, Monkey Do

On March 16, to contain the viral outbreak, Malaysia was preparing to enter into a nationwide lockdown. Of the 380 respondents surveyed, 199 respondents (52.4%) recalled feeling “worried” and “extremely worried” when they first heard the announcement, and there was a surge in panic buying two days prior to the MCO.

Ninety-two respondents (24.2%) admitted to panic buying, and many of them stocked up on instant or canned food; 61 respondents hoarded large quantities of masks, gloves and hand sanitisers, while 47 respondents loaded up on personal care items such as toothpaste, shampoo and soap, respectively.

On March 16 Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin announced that Malaysia will be entering into a lockdown.

Reasons given for panic buying ran the gamut from not having enough food supply to last the entire MCO period, to worrying that the supply chains would be temporarily disrupted. “I was told to prepare for the worst,” says one respondent. Another shared that panic buying served as their “insurance against the unknown”.

Dr. Yeoh Si Han.

Uncertainty fuels anxiety, explains Dr. Yeoh Si Han, a clinical psychologist at Pantai Hospital Penang. This gives rise to the tendency to mimic each other’s behaviour, without a clear understanding of the consequences and reasons involved. “During such times, a lot of people are guided by a collectivistic mind-set. But I believe we can behave more rationally, and think more critically too, if we are able to get a handle on our emotionally-charged thoughts. But even so, the days leading up to the MCO saw the more level-headed also succumbing to panic buying. They feared that the supermarkets would be completely cleaned out of food items once others have stockpiled the necessities,” she says.

“Panic buying was justifiable because we were unsure of what to expect. Once it was made known that a member from each household was able to go out to purchase food items, only then did the anxiety gradually dissipate. By then, Malaysians already had a rough idea of how to live their lives in quarantine. Access to information granted them back a sense of control.”

Correspondingly, there was a lot of initial fear of contracting Covid-19; 63.9% (243 respondents) worried about experiencing flu-like symptoms.

Adjusting to Life under Quarantine

With strict containment measures in place, communication and connection quickly gained primacy. However, 28.9% (110 respondents) found it difficult to stay connected with others while practising social distancing. These individuals preferred meeting face-to-face and missed bonding through shared activities. “There's a limit to the level of intimacy you get from chatting online versus in-person. For the former, it is often the case of ‘I'll reply you when I'm free’, whereas for in-person communication, the response is more instantaneous and expressive,” says a respondent, in reference to the use of body language and facial expressions.

Though the internet provided significant reprieve from total isolation, there were also the complications of low internet bandwidth and poor internet speed. Adding to this, Penangites of the older generation are generally not tech savvy. One respondent shares, “I can’t visit my grandparents during the MCO and they don’t know how to use a smartphone. I tried talking to them over the phone, but it was difficult as both have hearing problems.”

Crowds of shoppers queueing at Tesco Seri Tanjung Pinang a few hours before the MCO was first announced.

When it comes to showing love, physical presence and the power of touch are important elements, but Yeoh also urges that we learn to adapt to new ways of connecting. “Different people sense love differently, what’s most important is the emotional connection – to feel like we are being cared for by others. People have to want to make an effort to stay in each other’s lives.”

A total of 247 (65%) respondents quarantined with their families, allowing for closer bonds to be forged during the MCO; and as was to be expected, family discussions centred on Covid-19 news developments, the state of Malaysia’s political affairs and the country’s economy.

True to the Penang way of life, the respondents also discussed food planning with their families. Regular family mealtimes increased as a result of everyone being holed up indoors. Many respondents say that the act of coming together to eat helped them reconnect as a family. At the dining table, they shared not only food but also thoughts, feelings and experiences with each other.

One respondent who experienced the lockdown with their family says, “There were more fights and nagging, but also more hanging out and laughing. High was higher, low was lower. We never got fed up with the lockdown, but we did still have bad days of feeling trapped and annoyed with each other.” Another respondent agrees, adding, “We had to take time getting used to each other’s quirks and idiosyncrasies.” Respondents also mentioned that there were less distractions and more open communication, and that they were able to do activities they missed out on doing as a family due to conflicting schedules.

Unlimited Free Time

Presented with unexpected down time, 73.7% (280) of the respondents picked up new positive habits. Among these, 54.6% (153 respondents) shared that they practised mindful eating, 47.9% (134 respondents) took up exercising and 46.1% (129 respondents) consciously reduced food wastage.

A number of respondents added that they had been cooking, cleaning and reading more as well. Sleeping habits had also improved for some, since people managed to get in extra hours of sleep during the MCO.

“To sustain these habits, individuals are encouraged to identify their main motivations for sticking to them. External motivations are not usually as effective as internal ones,” explains Yeoh, adding that external motivation comes in the form of rewards and other incentives, including praise from other people; while internal motivations focus on our thoughts, feelings, values and goals. A total of 182 respondents cited self-reflection and self-improvement as primary drivers, while 121 and 105 respondents said they wanted to fill their time doing something productive and to resume a habit they once picked up, respectively.

“To cultivate a habit, one must do it frequently – daily, even.” Interestingly, a majority of 249 respondents (88.9%) believed their habits would last. Conversely, staying cooped up at home may have also contributed to increased unproductivity levels; 45.3% (172 respondents) admitted to being idle. Amusingly, some also lamented about being unable to satisfy food cravings because of closed kopitiams, or that hawker stalls were located beyond the 10km-radius limit.

Some have been preparing their own meals during the MCO.

Due to the 10km-radius limit, some respondents lamented about not being able to satisfy food cravings.

When quizzed about whether they tried to help others during the MCO, 59.2% (225 respondents) said they did their part by supporting local businesses. The same percentage of respondents also said they made sure to regularly check-in on their friends, neighbours or relatives who may have felt lonely; while 44.7% (170 respondents) expressed gratitude to the frontliners on social media platforms. A few mentioned about caring for animals – one respondent even donated to animal shelters and to the zoos.

“As a society, individuals who are in a better position can help those who are not, and together, we can find our footing in this new normal,” says Yeoh. The #kitajagakita campaign is one example that gathers organisations and individuals to assist those badly affected by the MCO, quite the opposite to the initial mania of panic buying.

The Nearing End?

At the time of writing, Malaysia is a month and a half into the Recovery Movement Control Order. However, despite 

Regular family mealtimes increased as a result of everyone being holed up indoors.

dwindling covid-19 cases (July recorded daily cases to be below 20), there is a lingering sense of fear and concern; 20.5% of the respondents had felt that it was still scary to venture out in public.

Of the respondents surveyed, 77% (292 respondents) said that they were uncomfortable when people coughed or sneezed around them; 57% (216 respondents) were nervous coming into close contact with those who did not have face masks on, and 44.9% (170 respondents) were wary of making physical contact with others. A number were also worried about being in close proximity to those who are not local, and around health workers who were still in their work uniforms. But overall, 234 respondents (61.6%) implied a waning of fear of contracting Covid-19.

The face mask – the new fashion accessory.

It is taking a while for people to learn how to properly social distance.

Yeoh shares her observation on whether the SOPs introduced during the MCO will still be practised or ignored, “It is possible for us to grow indifferent to the SOPs since as humans, we are prone to slip back into old habits, especially when it ‘feels’ like things are getting better. But I believe a standard list of SOPs must be made available to all.”

Her assessment strikes a chord; pandemics are fertile grounds for the breeding of social stigmas, and thus far, information relayed from the top-down has been fragmented and scattered at best. This is particularly the case with kopitiam operators who have resorted to implementing their own set of safety measures, e.g. cordoning off certain areas but leaving other spaces free to access, and checking customers’ temperatures but failing to request that they disclose their contact details.

"Hope is important for such a time – it is a drive for us to work towards our desired outcomes."

Cultivating mutual trust is equally important. This belief helps one to readily accept restrictions on normal activities and respond well to government-guided collective actions. Yeoh explains, “We need to trust that when the government puts us in the recovery stage, this means that they are confident in their efforts to contain the pandemic. Between citizens, mutual trust must also be present to achieve a high compliance rate and to prevent a second wave from occurring.” As of June 25, the compliance rate in Penang has been 99.67% and 99.25% on the island and the mainland, respectively.2

Silver Lining

Of the many good things to come out of the crisis, several respondents are in agreement that the government handled the crisis well and that Malaysians acted responsibly when complying to the SOPs. “Many people realise now that Malaysia is not so bad a country after all, when compared to others,” says a respondent. Some others were glad to see Malaysians unite and help each other out.

The MCO also provided opportunities for self-reflection and personal growth. Respondents were able to finally catch up on family time and learn to cherish friendships more. One respondent says, “The MCO has taught people to accept change.” Yeoh’s main takeaway comes from a similar angle too, “From this pandemic, we learn that life is uncertain and that we may not be fully ready to face everything. But I believe we have the resilience. Hope is important for such a time – it is a drive for us to work towards our desired outcomes. If we are hopeful that things will get better, then together we can work towards the change we want to see.”

Note: The writer is an intern at Penang Monthly.

1 1 https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2020/06/600675/comply-sops-orsee- relaxations-reversed-msians-told
2 https://www.buletinmutiara.com/penang-govt-uses-cctv-cameras-toensure- public-compliance/
Esther Ping Dominic is a writer who is surprisingly still alive despite the saying “curiosity kills the cat”. Having been on the receiving end of undeserved kindness, she aims to live her life reflecting that.



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