We Spoke to People Who Were Scared of Germs Long Before the Coronavirus

"I’m worried about the virus being everywhere, like there’s no safe space for me anymore. I see them in my mind and think that they’re coming to get me."
07 April 2020, 8:03am
Singapore, Philippines, Coronavirus, Virus, COVID-19, VICE, Germs, Germophobia, Mysophobia, OCD, Wash, Hands, Hygiene, clean, Face masks

Mysophobia, more commonly known as germophobia, is the fear of infection or contamination by germs, bacteria, and antibodies, and is commonly recognised as a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. People who are mysophobic feel compelled to take extra steps to ensure their cleanliness. Some examples include obsessively washing one's hands, taking frequent showers, and watching out for contamination of food and drinks. It’s a daily struggle that is only exacerbated by the novel coronavirus.

It may seem like germophobes have a head start in the pandemic. After all, they’ve been taking precautions against germs long before we thought to even don face masks. But for some, the current state of the world offers little respite. Now that the ramifications and impacts of COVID-19 are felt the world over, the stakes are higher. There’s an added fear to keep themselves, their loved ones, and their homes clean.

VICE spoke with some people who are experiencing this to know more about what life is like for them in the time of coronavirus.

Sue, 24
Marketing Executive, Singapore

How would you describe your fear of germs? When did it start?
I think my anxiety and worry about germs started when I graduated college. I don’t remember much of how I got to that point but more than the usual hand washing and alcohol application, I was aware of how different my thought process regarding the possible transmission of germs was, as compared to that of others.

I see it everywhere, like I have a microscopic lens. I was too afraid and worried about touching things, especially when there wasn’t an opportunity to wash my hands immediately after. It came to a point where I needed to wash my hands five times in one go for 20 seconds each.

I also keep a handy bottle of hand soap and alcohol with me at all times. This mindset has affected my relationships. I’ve had fights with ex-boyfriends because they didn’t wash their hands or didn’t have hygiene habits that were the same as mine. It was exhausting.

However, I have tried managing my anxiety and have changed my ways a little. I have become more relaxed after learning that excessive cleanliness can actually put me more at risk.

How are you coping with the outbreak?
I think I’m doing OK. The measures taken on social distancing are great and should be done on a daily basis, but I’m definitely feeling more anxious than before. I’m always on the lookout for masks, sanitary products, and the like. Like my peers, I’m frustrated that a lot of my travel and leisure plans are cancelled or postponed but I know that it’s necessary.

What habits have you cultivated to stay clean?
When eating out, I tend to wipe my utensils before using them, or I just avoid using them and use my own set of utensils instead. I also clean my laptop once a week. I avoid putting my phone on the table and keep it in my pocket or on my lap instead when I’m eating outside. The same goes for my laptop bag and purse. I hang them on the chair I’m sitting on or get an extra chair to put them on. Basically, if I can avoid putting them on the table, I will.

How has the coronavirus changed your routine?
I’ve taken extra precautionary measures when going out. I wear masks while taking the train and use hand sanitizer frequently.

How are you controlling your anxiety?
I am consciously pushing that fear away and it’s tiring sometimes. I try to stay at home and avoid going out for too long or to places that are crowded. The past few weekends have been spent entirely at home.

What are you worried about?
I’m worried that this pandemic will last longer than expected. I’m also worried about people who are still not washing their hands, even after a pandemic has been declared. There are still people who aren’t washing their hands and taking necessary precautions, and I find that quite worrying.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Mikaela, 25
Public Relations Associate, Philippines

How are you coping with the outbreak?
When the first case was confirmed in the Philippines, I felt a slight fear. But I continued reading about the disease and believed that there were still ways to prevent the spread. However, when the government declared an enhanced community quarantine in Luzon island in March, I became more scared and anxious.

I was too afraid for my family and loved ones. I chose to stay in my condo alone rather than go home to my family because of the fear that I might be an asymptomatic coronavirus carrier. I followed a strict quarantine for 17 days and never left my condo. I still feel scared and anxious but I make an effort to manage my emotions well and just try to live as normal as possible.

What habits have you cultivated to stay clean?
Hand washing is still my number one. I have also made it a point to wash my hands right after touching surfaces that may have coronavirus — grocery items from outside and common areas such as elevators and door knobs. I also avoid touching my face. Germs are unavoidable but I know there are ways to manage them.

How has the coronavirus changed your routine?
Honestly, there weren’t any changes. I have just adjusted my hygiene routine and taken more precautionary measures such as extra hand washing. I also became more aware of how easily the virus can be transmitted from one surface to another.

How are you controlling your anxiety?
I keep telling myself to calm down. I tell myself that I’m being irrational when I start getting paranoid and that doing this will just make things worse.

What are you worried about?
I’m worried about the virus being everywhere, like there’s no safe space for me anymore. I see them in my mind and think that they’re coming to get me. But I make an effort to stay grounded and snap back to reality. I just do my part and try to go through every day.

Photo by Curology on Unsplash

Celine, 22
Receptionist and Musician, Singapore

How are you coping with the outbreak?
I’m coping surprisingly well in terms of my germophobia. It doesn’t send me into a spiral or anything like that.

What habits have you cultivated to stay clean?
My habits are the same as before. No street clothes in the bed and I sanitise my phone and earpiece every night whenever I’ve gone out. I don’t feel any more conscious than before.

Are there any changes in your routine?
No, not really. I I have always tried my best to avoid contact with any surfaces on public transport and whenever I’m out. If anything, I might be subconsciously sanitising my hands more frequently now. Having hand sanitizers so easily available everywhere is like a dream come true for me and I wish this could be a thing even after COVID-19.

How are you controlling your anxiety?
The only slight anxiety I get is when I hear someone coughing around me, especially when they’re not wearing a mask. But that’s kind of how I feel, in general, when someone coughs or is sick. I just feel like I’m gonna catch it. It has just always been a strange irrational fear. I would say that I'm not that anxious about the situation but I try to stay home as much as I can.

What are you worried about?
I’m just worried about the situation not getting better and how much it’s going to affect all of our lives.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.