Using data to assess reactions to COVID-19 lockdowns

Monday, 02 August, 2021

Using data to assess reactions to COVID-19 lockdowns

Defence scientists in Australia are developing tools to assess how a society is likely to react to measures, such as lockdowns, to manage the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic has prompted governments to respond with policies that are effective and sustainable for extended periods. It would be useful for governments to have a litmus test that tells it how the population is coping, and points to strategies that policymakers can employ to improve readiness for further lockdowns and other impositions.

Defence scientist Dr Eugene Aidman (Defence Science and Technology Group — DSTG) and collaborator Dr Sabina Kleitman (University of Sydney School of Psychology) have taken the opportunity to pivot science that is improving soldier cognitive fitness towards assessing society’s mental health and ability to cope with the pandemic. Dr Aidman and Dr Kleitman have been helping Defence to understand cognition in order to improve soldier task performance.

Dr Aidman’s all-encompassing Cognitive Fitness Framework (CF2) identifies the key ingredients underpinning real-time task performance and career longevity in high-risk occupations, and is designed as a guide for assessing, training and improving the performance of Defence personnel. Dr Aidman and Dr Kleitman posit that the CF2 principles could be applied in a broader public health context to drive better adjustment and cognitive recovery in the general public during prolonged, potentially high-risk events, such as public health emergencies.

“The COVID-19 pandemic offered a unique, naturally occurring opportunity to examine this likelihood empirically. We wanted to explore the role of adaptability and mental resilience in compliance behaviour and mental wellbeing, and for predictions about readiness for another lockdown. Interviewing was a race against time because we really wanted to capture people in the recovery stage. We were then able to conduct a third study just as we hit the second lockdown in the eastern states,” said Dr Kleitman.

The research had three main objectives: to use the unique natural situation created by COVID-19 to ascertain if Dr Aidman’s Cognitive Fitness Framework can be used with the general population; to determine the factors behind positive and adaptive responses following the first-wave peak and lockdown to predict future lockdown readiness and current mental wellbeing; and to guide identification and assessment of the cognitive attributes that can be targeted during periods of prolonged uncertainty, to help prepare for future threats.

Through the study, the researchers discovered ways to predict the average citizen’s mental wellbeing and whether they would be ready for a future lockdown (or other high-risk event). The data showed that people would be less ready if they were experiencing COVID-19 fatigue or had experienced a negative COVID-19 impact. Pre-existing resilience, adaptability skills, strong social support, good financial security, experiencing personal growth through COVID-19 and a positive COVID-19 impact were predictors of good mental wellbeing.

Dr Aidman and Dr Kleitman’s research offers valuable options for assessing mental readiness for public health emergencies such as pandemics. The survey tools they developed complement the broader effort by DSTG and its research partners to develop methods of measuring and enhancing cognitive fitness through selection, training and operational support.

The results pave the way for future experimental studies investigating the role of the newly proposed ‘metacognitive resilience growth factor’ (assessing one’s own thought processes and understanding how one’s resilience is growing through experiencing an event) in recovery from challenging events.

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