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How Philadelphia Reacted When the Pandemic Hit

Illustration depicting two people with anxious thoughts

October 14, 2021

By Greg Richter

We no longer refer to SARS-CoV-2 as “the novel coronavirus,” and the pandemic is still ongoing, so it might be difficult to look back on the early days of the pandemic. That said, reflecting on how Philadelphians reacted when the pandemic first hit may help us learn to be better prepared for changes in this pandemic, as well as other health crises down the road.

This is some of the motivation behind a new paper out this month in PLOS ONE from researchers at the Dornsife School of Public Health, which provides a much clearer snapshot of how Philadelphia residents managed through the “first wave” of the pandemic than what was previously known.

The paper’s authors analyzed and shared descriptions of the most difficult or stressful events from almost 800 Philadelphians — compiled between April 17 and July 3, 2020 – and found trends in how Philadelphia residents coped through things like anxiety, depression, worries and fears.

The survey found that more than a third of respondents experienced anxiety during this period. The authors also found that anxiety, depression and fear of infection increased as the first wave continued, but concern about hardships did not.

“Our analysis unsurprisingly found that most worries fell under fear of hardships and fear of infection,” said co-author Igor Burstyn, PhD, an associate professor at Dornsife. “I was deeply touched by the extent of suffering caused by shutdown orders last summer. People were anxious and depressed not just because of fear of infection but mostly because their whole lives were turned upside down by through government actions and withdrawal of deeply treasured liberties. It must be noted that the epidemic produced both positive and negative experiences for people, and the best way to understand this seems to be to listen to what folk have to say.”

The hardships were far-reaching.

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