How are we feeling? NYU Abu Dhabi leads global study on psychological effects of Covid-19

The groundbreaking PsyCorona initiative offers invaluable insight into the ramifications of the pandemic on mental health around the globe

FILE - In this May 23, 2020 file photo, a woman wears a face mask while walking under a sign that reads "Relax think COVID free thoughts" during the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco. California health officials have reported the state’s first coronavirus death of a child. The state Department of Public Health said Friday, July 31, the victim was a teenager, had other health conditions and died in the Central Valley.  No other details were released. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)
Powered by automated translation

A mere seven days after the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 a pandemic in March, a consortium of experts from around the world started examining the effects of the coronavirus on mental health and human behaviour. The effort was led by Jocelyn Belanger at NYU Abu Dhabi and Pontus Leander at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

That's the beauty and curse of human nature. We adapt rapidly, but by adapting rapidly, we often forget the lessons of the past.

More than 100 social scientists have since teamed up to create one of the most comprehensive and far-reaching explorations of the psychological effects of the health crisis. The goal of the collaborative, multi-national study, dubbed PsyCorona, is to gather data that show “how people cope with the same virus in different situations in different countries” and then share that information with policy makers, so they can streamline their response to this, and future, pandemics.

“The general idea is that people’s mindsets, attitudes, feelings, beliefs, or intuitions – which translate into behaviour – influence and predict the development of the epidemic in certain areas,” says the study.

The first stage of the initiative consisted of a series of 20-minute surveys, sent out at regular intervals. So far, 61,608 respondents from more than 115 countries have taken part, with the surveys made available in 29 languages, including English, German, Arabic, Italian, Malay and Hungarian. Questions range from the micro (are people washing their hands regularly) to the macro (do they feel like they are receiving clear messages from their government about how to respond to the crisis). Although the team are still sorting through the mountains of data to extract their findings, some patterns emerged early on.

Signs encouraging social distancing line the main concourse of an empty Coors Field before the Colorado Rockies host the San Diego Padres in a baseball game Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
The survey initially focused on people’s responses to stay-at-home and social distancing measures. AP 

How are we feeling?

In the surveys, there is much focus on emotions, and not just the obvious ones. The questions asked reflect how complex, multi-faceted and ever-changing our responses to the pandemic have been – recognising that in addition to anxiety, nervousness and depression, some people may be feeling calm, bored, energetic or angry. Tellingly, the survey also asks whether respondents feel “loved”.

We are social beings; we are not made to stay at home forever, so that takes a toll on us

“We are social beings; we are not made to stay at home forever, so that takes a toll on us,” says principal investigator Belanger, who is an assistant professor of psychology at NYU Abu Dhabi. “Some countries are safe, but the price of that is boredom and, potentially, depression. You have to create a balance between mental health and safety. So how do we strike that balance where we are safe but also resilient?

“As a policy maker, if you see that your country is doing poorly on depression and anxiety, maybe you need to roll out platforms and mental health resources for your community, to help them. If people are bored, that’s also a red flag.”

All About Brands: New Website - Photoshoot 

Photographer: John Hope

The study is being spearheaded by NYU Abu Dhabi. NYU Abu Dhabi

The economic fallout of the pandemic is arguably having the greatest effect on people’s well-being, the study has revealed. “In our survey, we found that financial strain is one of the main predictors of poor mental health – people losing their job and their means of providing for their family, and also the stress that comes with not being able to pay mortgages and bills,” Belanger explains.

"A lot of people also define themselves through their work, and are passionate about their work, and so not having access to that source of meaning also takes its toll."

What happens when a pandemic hits society?

Belanger is a social psychologist who is "interested in why people do what they do". Over the past 10 years, he has focused on the psychology of terrorism and violent extremism, and last year published a book on the subject, called The Three Pillars of Radicalisation: Needs, Narratives, and Networks.

"I'm interested in motivation," he tells The National via a Zoom call. A week after Covid-19 was declared a pandemic by WHO, Belanger was contacted by his friend and fellow social psychologist, Leander, who was interested in launching a study into the psychological and social ramifications of Covid-19.

The two men enlisted the help of an expansive network of experts, including psychologists, psychiatrists, data scientists, political scientists and health practitioners, creating what Belanger likens to a “multinational company” within a matter of days.

The fact that they mobilised so quickly means they have been able to paint a full picture of the varied and evolving psychological responses to the pandemic. “We were able to really get proper insights into what happens – what are the primary responses and the reflex responses – when a pandemic hits humanity. We were able to capture that in the data, which I think is profound,” says Belanger.

Connecting the dots

The second stage of the study involves connecting the dots. “Once we captured a substantial amount of interesting data with phase one, we merged this psychological global data set with other existing data sets. So, for example, the rates of deaths and recovery in certain countries, or the types of policies that are being implemented worldwide. What are the impacts on the economy? We merged our data with 78 other databases, using AI to figure out what’s going on.

“We are measuring the impact on our mental health of the Covid-19 crisis. But also seeing what type of policies work in order to improve mental health and reduce financial strain, and also reduce the spread of the virus. So, for example, we can see that the more people have access to clear information from their government, the more they respect sanitary measures to help prevent the spread of Covid-19.”

A cursory glance at the data, which is now being made available through an online visualisation tool accessible at, reveals this to be true.

Although the UAE has a relatively small sample size, graphs show that respondents from the Emirates agree that they are getting “clear, unambiguous messages about what to do about the coronavirus” from their government.

This translates as a firm understanding of the importance of things like avoiding crowded spaces and washing hands regularly. They also respond positively to the question: “I have high hopes that the situation regarding coronavirus will improve.”

'It's a perfect storm for extremism to arise'

Gauging the psychological effects of the health crisis is particularly important when seen through the lens of Belandger’s own field of expertise. “The first crisis is Covid-19 as we know it; the second is the financial meltdown. And then, as Covid-19 sets in, people become frustrated, then they perhaps become vengeful and they start to defy authority, which we’ve seen in the US.

“I think it’s a perfect storm – the pandemic, the threat of the outsider, the financial unrest, governments imposing lockdowns and constraining people’s perceived freedom. That’s a perfect storm for extremism to arise, particularly in the western world.”

For some people, this situation might be an opportunity to reflect profoundly on the way they interact and how they behave. They might experience gratitude for things they took for granted

With so much invaluable data being gathered, Belanger imagines this work will eventually find itself into book form. “I think it’s important to extract lessons for the future," he says. "It’s not just the here and now. It’s about, next time, let’s put this in our play book. We know this works and that doesn’t.”

And, finally, the billion dollar question. Given his unique viewpoint, does Belanger think that the coronavirus crisis will have a long-term impact on human behaviour?

“For some people, this situation might be an opportunity to reflect profoundly on the way they interact and how they behave. They might experience gratitude for things they took for granted. But also, the psychologist in me knows that people adapt very rapidly to things and that old habits die hard.

“It might take a little time for people to go back into the dangerous world, which is potentially full of viruses and germs, but people forget rapidly. That’s the beauty and curse of human nature. We adapt rapidly, but by adapting rapidly, we often forget the lessons of the past.”