Personal reflections on parallels observed between behavioural similarities in times of civil war, and during a pandemic

Jasna Levinger-Goy

April 2020

Contemporary Psychotherapy Covid Image
‘Covid’ by Travis Wise (CC BY 2.0)

The following does not aspire to give a serious scientific analysis based on research. It is just a catalogue of my experiences of, and reflections on, some similarities I have witnessed between the changes in people’s behaviour during a civil war, and in the war against a virus. Namely, having spent several months in Sarajevo during the civil war (the 1992 Bosnian civil war), and several months now living throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, I have noticed a striking resemblance in some aspects of human behaviour. I started monitoring my own behaviour and that of people around me, as well as of my clients. Below is my attempt to name several behavioural patterns I have seen, which I have illustrated with some examples.

Initially, it felt to me that the COVID-19 pandemic had created a war-like atmosphere, with some accompanying behavioural changes.  It seems that whether it is a visible or an invisible enemy, human beings experience, above all, an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and loss of a sense of control. Life changes quickly and without people’s say in the matter. ‘Things’ just land on people and keep happening, without any control, and often having detrimental consequences. Agency is taken away.

Around me I saw a certain amount of nervousness settle in, as the ‘waiting game’ started, and with it feelings of helplessness. Some people started questioning the meanings and values they have long believed in and, in a few, a sense of the ‘pointlessness’ of ‘it all’ has taken over; the ultimate effect of it being a devastating notion of the insignificance of human existence. Death enters everyday life. It is not a remote possibility anymore; it is forever getting closer and becoming a reality. Neighbours and friends get killed and wounded; friends and neighbours are infected with COVID-19 and dying. Almost everyone in Sarajevo in the early nineties knew a few who became war casualties, and now quite a number here will know someone who will succumb to COVID-19.

In such a situation, fear can grow and become the main motivator, and where fear reigns, common sense is often the first victim. Reactions may vary between denial and panic, with very little in between. Some individuals may become daredevils, while others try to protect themselves in any which way. Antagonism between groups can grow, with the extremely frightened ones seeing daredevils as unreasonable and a danger to others, while daredevils see the scared ones as unreasonable and cowardly. Another not uncommon reaction is susceptibility to rumours and conspiracy theories. Some individuals have started to believe anything and everything without question, e.g. that enemies are poisoning our water (the same water the enemy drinks), or that ‘the such and such’ a government has planted COVID-19 (in spite of the fact that those countries suffer equally).

In both wars – whether against a fellow human being or against a virus – feeling the need to act and ‘do something’ often grows exponentially, even when that ‘something’ might be irrational, such as hanging nicely starched lace curtains over windows with blown out panes, or panic buying enormous quantities of toilet rolls. But we also do many productive things, such as finding food sources or tutoring children at home, or other various activities that help our daily existence. This can help mitigate against developing feelings of uselessness. In all of this the sense of time changes, and this can become unsettling. The day can become both too long and too short, and if we do not, or are unable to, maintain structure and routine, one day can merge into the other, creating an illusion of a continuum. This may be experienced positively, but can often be unbearable.

The fact that both ‘wars’ bring chaos to life makes functioning difficult.  People mostly need routine and structure in their days, since both usually provide a sense of safety and security, but in these extreme circumstances it can be difficult to establish. Some people have been forced to stop working, while for others work has changed significantly. Other regular daily activities have disappeared, possibly substituted with others – which may be either more or less satisfying – or replaced with none. Feelings of unease can creep in insidiously.

At times the threshold of tolerance can become lowered. Reactions may be exaggerated, with things becoming magnified or feeling out of proportion. People can become hypersensitive, quarrels may start ‘out of nowhere’, and instances of domestic abuse or relationship breakdown may grow. Individuals may become more volatile, and at the same time confused or frightened by their own volatility.

The advantage of a pandemic, though, lies in the fact that starvation probably does not occur in the literal sense, although preoccupation with food and eating can be similar. In the case of lockdown this can be through boredom, while during times of war hunger may become a lasting sensation, either through lack of food or fear that it might not be available.  That sheds light onto the humiliating position of satisfying only basic needs (getting food, preparing food etc.), which then can cause the feeling of shame, degradation, and ‘dehumanisation’. Again, in an attempt to retain integrity and to reject the state of ‘dehumanisation’ one often devises all sorts of activities, both positive and negative. People start helping others, supporting others (such as visiting vulnerable people, clapping for the NHS), or may focus on ‘good deeds’ in order to prove their humanity. However, some also turn to reporting to the authorities the ‘enemy behaviour’, making accusations of ‘light signals to the enemy’ during a blackout, or ‘telling on’ those socialising and not complying with the lockdown instructions.

Unlike in the civil war, in COVID-19 the ‘war’ is rather abstract; there is nothing to be seen, not even the enemy themselves. There are no destroyed buildings, no rubble and no power cuts, for instance. No sound of bombs, bullets, or screams. With no ‘concrete proof’ of the enemy’s existence, people often find it difficult to take the necessary precautionary measures suggested to them, and easier to hold onto denial for much longer. Lockdown measures, resulting in reduced movement and lack of social interaction, while being stuck in one place 24/7, can cause further difficulties. These, however, were not prevalent in the civil war, but in both situations there will likely be an increased risk of rebellion, hyperactivity, “autopilot” functioning, lethargy, or depression.

I restate that these are just personal tentative observations, but they have helped me monitor myself, as well as support my clients. I have been able to recognise the emergence of feelings that are unusual, and often match them with my previous experiences and observations. Recognising these behavioural patterns both in ourselves and in our clients may improve our work, and help therapists and clients alike in understanding the situation and accepting their responses. Meanwhile, normalising the uncharacteristic, unfamiliar and strange behaviours we are experiencing by pointing out that it is not that there is something wrong with an individual, but that it is the situation that is ‘wrong’, can be supportive in eliminating, or at least diminishing, the fear of ‘losing it’.

Dr Jasna Levinger-Goy, PhD, MBACP, has an HE Diploma in Integral Therapeutic Counselling from Anglia Ruskin University and a PhD in Sociolinguistics from Zagreb University. She worked as a university lecturer for most of her professional life. Having qualified as a psychotherapist, she volunteered in several agencies (Centre33, Cambridge University Counselling Service, and Cogwheel Trust). She now works in private practice in Cambridge.
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