Israelis are so used to coping with events such as the threats of war, terror, price rises and strikes that the COVID-19 pandemic did not cause them to panic, even though it has been something they never experienced before.
That was the conclusion reached by a team of psychologists and public health experts from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) in Beerseheba who conducted nationwide polls of a representative sample of 1,000 Jewish Israelis to “take their pulse” as life gradually returns to normalcy, albeit with strict requirements for social distancing, wearing facemask and personal hygiene.
The BGU team was spearheaded by Prof. Golan Shahar from the psychology department head of the Stress, Self and Health (Strealth), and includes Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, head of BGU’s School of Public Health; Prof. Limor Ahronson-Daniel, BGU’s vice president for global engagement and head of the PREPARED Center for Emergency Response Research; Prof. Itamar Grotto, associate director-general of Israel’s Health Ministry; Dr. Hadar Shalev, head of the Trauma and Neuropsychiatric Clinic at Soroka University Medical Center; and Prof. David Greenberg, head of Soroka’s pediatrics division and a member of the Faculty of Health Sciences.
After gradually rising for a month, the Israeli public’s anxiety levels remained unchanged four weeks into the coronavirus lockdown and then dropped as “habituation” set in. The first poll was conducted on February 19, 2020, when COVID-19 had hit hard in China and other parts of the world but had not yet reached Israel. This gave them a baseline of the Israeli public’s general anxiety levels.
They then conducted seven follow-up weekly polls, asking Israelis to assess their general anxiety, their worries about the coronavirus specifically and their feelings about the Health Ministry, which set down the rules on coping with the huge threat to health.
BGU researchers had found in previous studies that perceptions of the ministry influence people’s anxiety levels. “There was a linear gradual moderate increase in anxiety both general and specific to the virus for the first four weeks,” the team said. “This was expected, because we would expect a linear increase in anxiety because there’s an increase in threat. However, from weeks four to six, anxiety leveled off and plateaued. We believe that trend is consistent with habituation as people adjusted to the new situation. The Israeli public did not panic at any point,” the researchers declared.
Breaking down the data by age and communities, the team discovered that younger people’s anxiety rose more sharply during the first month of the lockdown than older people’s, but then it plunged over the last few weeks.
Anxiety in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish (haredi) community spiked much later than other communities, which may indicate a belated understanding of the seriousness of the situation that resulted in violations of the rules by some of them and relatively high numbers of infections in their cities and neighborhoods.
The study was conducted under the auspices of the BGU Coronavirus Task Force, which was initiated by BGU president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz to harness the ingenuity of the faculty and the resources of the University to tackle the myriad challenges the current pandemic poses.