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'Hygiene theatre' helps people feel safe during COVID-19, says psychologist

FILE - A cellphone is disinfected. (Kelvin Gawley, NEWS 1130 Photo)

There may be a benefit with our obsession with disinfection, which is sometimes referred to as 'hygiene theatre'

Going overboard with cleaning can be disruptive to your life, but it can give you a sense of security, says expert

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – As the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) clarifies how COVID-19 is spread, one psychologist says there may still be benefits to all our cleaning and sanitization, which has been dubbed “hygiene theatre.”

This month, the BCCDC changed its guidance around COVID-19 to clarify the virus spreads through droplets in the air, and infection from contaminated surfaces appears to be rare.

The term “hygiene theatre” is an offshoot of the “security theatre” we saw at airports following 9-11. Just like how a lot of money was spent upgrading airport security to questionable effect, a lot of effort is now going into keeping surfaces disinfected, when that’s not typically how the virus spreads.

Some health experts have argued while erring on the side of caution isn’t a bad thing, there are drawbacks if you take it to the extreme.

“Going overboard with the cleaning, that’s disruptive and expensive. Those resources could be spent on better things,” said UBC Clinical Psychologist Steven Taylor.

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Taylor says constantly wiping down surfaces was a go-to solution for people in the early days of the pandemic, and the public health guidance reflected that. But even though the science has shifted since then, Taylor says there is still value people doing this, as it gives people a sense of calm.

“It gives people a sense of security, even if it’s a false sense of security. But it doesn’t lead them to do dangerous things,” he explained.

A science brief from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted last month also supports the guidance from the BCCDC. It says surface transmission is not the main route by which SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the risk is considered to be low.

The BCCDC still lists “disinfecting high touch surfaces” as a way to reduce transmission of COVID-19.