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10 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 12:47pm

Gilad Hirschberger: “This is probably the most traumatic event since the Second World War”

The Israeli psychologist believes Covid-19 is causing “collective trauma”, as societies grapple with an existential threat.

By Emily Bootle

I first spoke to Gilad Hirschberger in April 2020, for New Statesman article on the epidemic of mental health problems that was growing in tandem with that of coronavirus. Hirschberger, a professor of social and political psychology at the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) Herzliya, Israel, specialises in the psychology of threat perception; he developed a model to study collective threat specifically, and has written extensively about the collective trauma that arises from it. 

When I asked him then whether the Covid-19 pandemic constituted a collective trauma, he replied: “Maybe there are some places – like northern Italy, New York City, Wuhan – where the pandemic has materialised as a collective trauma already. In many other places, it’s more of an anticipated threat: people are being hospitalised and dying, but not at the rate you might consider a collective trauma.” 

Meeting him again over Zoom almost a year later, in late February 2021, I reminded him of our conversation. “Today we can say that this is probably the most traumatic event since the Second World War,” he said. 

In a 2018 paper, Hirschberger defines collective trauma as “a cataclysmic event that shatters the basic fabric of society”. We might normally associate trauma with tragedy in the lives of individuals but when a group is faced with severe threat, their collective means of understanding the world break down, mirroring what is happening on a personal level. 

We live our lives with all sorts of assumptions about what the world is like, about our own personal safety. What collective trauma does is create cracks in our assumptive world view

When we think about the types of crisis that spark collective trauma, we tend to focus most on the physical horrors: the mass death of a genocide, pandemic or natural disaster. But aside from making us question our immediate safety, collective traumas like this also present a “symbolic” threat – what Hirschberger describes as “a crisis of meaning”.

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“A collective trauma shatters something that Ronnie Janoff-Bulman, another social psychologist, called ‘assumptive world views’,” he explained. “We live our lives with all sorts of assumptions about what the world is like, about our own personal safety. What collective trauma does – and what this trauma has done – is create cracks in our assumptive world view.” 

Uncertainty is at the root of much psychological distress, and the kinds of questions these cracks have revealed – about the health of oneself and one’s family, and about the future of humanity itself – increase it. The discourse on mental health that has taken place throughout this pandemic has often centred on the question of whether feeling depressed or anxious in these circumstances should be pathologised or just treated as a rational response. Viewing it through the lens of collective trauma, the answer, perhaps, is both: feeling this way is a common, expected response to living through an event of this scale, but it may not be as simple as a bout of circumstantial depression in individuals. 

“What trauma really does is it places a question on social identity, on who we are, where we are going as a group,” said Hirschberger. Of course, we don’t yet have evidence of the pandemic’s impact on future generations’ world views, but Hirschberger points out the ways in which Covid-19 has already affected senses of group identity, citing the 2020 US election as an example of the pandemic helping people to realise “that something very wrong was happening”. “Collective trauma makes all kinds of problems that linger under the surface much more apparent: in the US, the disparities between the rich and the poor, and access to proper healthcare.” 

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In the future, as well as the major lifestyle changes that social distancing has catalysed (home-working, video calling and so on), we may be more aware of smaller epidemics – such as ebola outbreaks – and the potential effects of them on other groups. “We’re going to be a lot more vigilant,” Hirschberger said. Similarly, last April he told me: “This pandemic is creating a tension between national identity and a common humanity. Viruses don’t care about borders and fences. All of a sudden, the well-being of the ‘other’ becomes a vital interest of the group.” 

Collective trauma, such as that of the pandemic, is different from individual trauma in that “you don’t need to experience anything to suffer from the feeling of being traumatised”, Hirschberger told me. “Many people in the world are experiencing this sense of collective trauma without being sick, without knowing anyone who died, without there being any kind of physical manifestation of the trauma in their own lives – they’re still living in the shadow of this big event.” 

Similarly, collective trauma from the pandemic could manifest not only in those relatively unaffected now, but future generations with no memory at all of the event. Trauma inflicted by events such as genocide is often passed down through generations; it can become a way for a group to understand its own identity. The construction of meaning is a mechanism that can mitigate the sense of existential threat, and such narratives persist among groups that have historically been threatened. 

In the case of Covid-19, a natural occurrence that has affected the whole world, such a narrative is less straightforward to construct. “When we think about collective trauma, we usually think about a situation where one group harms another group,” Hirschberger explained. “There’s a clear perpetrator. When we’re talking about these acts of commission, we remember it better, we draw lessons much more explicitly. 

“The type of collective trauma we’re experiencing right now is an act of omission – unless you believe in conspiracy theories: a trauma that has come about because of a failure to notice, a failure to take action quickly. In cases like this, fewer lessons are learned.”

His caveat is revealing of the ways people have attempted to construct meaning even without a clear perpetrator. The prevalence of theories such as Covid being the “China virus” or a big pharma ploy, along with polarised politics such the war over mask-wearing, “provides closure”, said Hirschberger. “If there is a villain, we can go get them and make sure this is something that doesn’t happen again. Happenstance is always more terrifying than intent.”