Covid-19: Is it Us vs. Them?

Updated: Apr 1

When we are dealing with uncertainty and threat to our safety, we fall into old evolutionary patterns in an attempt to regain control and make ourselves feel safer. What would have kept us safe against threats thousands of years ago? Being in a group.


The group we feel connected to in the modern day can range from small to all the way to a larger environment. For example, your in-group can be your immediate family, or may be extended to your sports team, or may be extended to your whole country or culture across the world.

To enhance our sense of safety and control arising from being part of our in-group, we behave in ways that make us feel more connected with our group. One of the ways this happens is by creating distance and divide toward other distinct groups, the so-called out-groups. This lies at the heart of ‘us vs them’. “We are doing our best – they are the ones causing problems”.


We naturally feel warmer, more empathic and more lenient toward our in-group. If we have a close friend who coughs without covering their mouth, we are unlikely to feel as angry as we would when we see a total stranger doing the same. Criticising the out-group and emphasizing differences in a negative way, can increase in-group cohesion by creating a mutual enemy to bond against.


This in-group vs. out-group mentality in times that we are experiencing uncertainty and threat may be a natural instinct to us. However, while this may have been useful when we lived in caves trying to stay safe from an unpredictable outside world, this system is no longer adaptive to our modern-day world. We can see it happening now with Covid-19: The world is globally so connected that what we do on one continent will influence what happens on another continent. Our in-group can no longer be just the people who live in our own home.

With the changing times of globalization, we need to make conscious effort to adjust our evolutionary in-group-out-group instinct. We need to extend our in-group and come together as a community.



There are a few simple ways of doing this:


1. Look for commonalities with the people you don’t consider your immediate in-group. We are all worried about our health and the health and wellbeing of our loved ones. We are all struggling with the virus restrictions, economic uncertainty, and the impact of social distancing. We all wish this was over. Recognizing similarities in people we usually categorize as separate from us, helps us to build warmth, empathy and connection.

2. Stop playing the blame game. We are all experiencing a range of emotions that we want to vent. So, we look for someone to blame. None of us has sufficient information to identify the true cause of the global pandemic. We may shift our blame and anger to whoever is convenient: China, politicians, scientists, travellers, that neighbour with questionable personal hygiene… We need to recognize this as a process that we may use to alleviate our emotional distress and frustrations. Unfortunately, this only provides temporary relief and can rather heighten our negative feelings as we wind ourselves up.


3. Refocus your attention on your wellbeing. It is so easy to get caught up in watching the infection numbers go up every day, and reading up on all the different opinions, while getting into multiple fights on social media. Is this conducive to our wellbeing? How do we feel after we do this? Typically, it leaves us craving for more and our anxiety returns promptly and possibly more intensely. Instead, it is more helpful to take the time to write down a list of things we can do to enhance our wellbeing and focus on ourselves and our communities. And then go ahead and put some of those into action.

4. Share your anxieties and vulnerabilities. Social support has been well-evidenced to lift our moods and enhance our wellbeing. Share how you are feeling with people you love and trust. Listen to your family, friends, and acquaintances. Do not dismiss their feelings (‘oh well, everyone feels like this now, guess we have to suck it up’). Do not immediately jump to fix the problem (‘stop moping about and let’s make the best of this’) – there is no fix for this right now. Let those close to you express how they feel and just sit with them and share your own feelings. It helps to know we are all in this together and we are all human.


5. Check in with your values. Most of us don’t enjoy watching other people suffer and die. So, we are likely to hold values that reflect something like care, compassion, empathy, or support. What are those values urging you to do?


6. Check in with others – especially people who are not in your immediate circle. Listen to different perspectives. Reach out to people who may need additional support. The people who are struggling the most are often the least likely to reach out. Check in with each other to see how you are doing. Make a conscious effort to build bridges and extend your “in-group” to include people who you don’t instinctively have in there; and reap the rewards of human connection and community.



The outbreak of Covid-19 has created an environment full of suffering, fear, and uncertainty. Our primal instincts may be adaptive when we are being chased by a buffalo. However, a worldwide pandemic. requires us to engage our higher executive thinking and take action to create a community in which we can reduce our anxiety and enhance our wellbeing together. Our actions now can leave lasting strength, courage and bond in the community or they can leave divide, damage, and deep injury. It is up to you which one it will be.

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Dr Esslin Terrighena - Psychologist in Hong Kong

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