The Panic and Politics of the Great Coronavirus Scare

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It’s one of those times in history again: When the ominous threat of disease overshadows the news cycle, dominating it. Running alongside the drama of the 2020 campaign trail runs story after story about the ever-looming coronavirus — the newest threat to mortality to rock our globally-connected world. Articles proliferate on market tumult and death tolls. Reiterations of standard illness prevention tips abound alongside — oh wait — a guide to concocting your own homemade hand sanitizer? (A precaution if the store shelves are stripped next week, I suppose.)

And forget about all those articles, and all those words — think about all the images: Those vivid illustrations of viruses, barbed, glowing with sinister potential, bouncing around out there in the world, on a riotous mission of mass infection. And of the photojournalism efforts depicting the antiseptic, grim forms of workers in hazmat suits, the masked faces of people trudging down sidewalks, their expressions unreadable if not solemn, and the glimpses of the cold, sterile interiors of hospital halls.

At the core of the great coronavirus phenomenon is a tightly wound mass of fear. Never mind the calm rationality of published statistics that put the epidemic into perspective and never mind the billions of dollars pledged to pummeling the threat of the coronavirus (and to soothe people’s fears). In the end, even the loosest allusion to new contagious disease awakens the primordial fear of “death via plague” in people.

In understanding the response to the coronavirus’ continuing outbreaks, we must understand our relationship as humans to radical uncertainty. The initial phases of an epidemic are tinged by the terror of the unknown, by the inability to feel for the contours of a new threat. Even now, armed with a decent scientific understanding of the coronavirus threat, we are, as a world, disadvantaged by not being privy to its endgame. This is why the global reaction has been so wild and yet so varied.

Even-keeled probabilities do not compute in this strange, foreign land of the new, still-not-fully-knowable threat. Instead, extreme narratives of worst-case-scenarios naturally run roughshod over more tame prognostications, few and far between though they may be.

And disease is a unique villain to wreak havoc on societies. Disease lurks and hides itself, stowing away in microscopic germs, and then hideously unveiling itself in a series of reveals that lay bare the fragility of our humanness. It can feel evil, invasive, strangely imbued with anthropomorphic qualities. Disease can be a major culprit of panic gripping societies for precisely these reasons.

Epidemics in the present have a few things going for them. Consider that the coronavirus has a constantly-referenced, specific name (albeit not a particularly scary one) with which fear and uncertainty are attached to. It goes without saying that the coronavirus enjoys hyper-relevancy due to its swift and surprise proliferation across the globe over the course of recent days and weeks. Time is more viscerally felt in the hushed apprehension of such a development. And time is space for anxiety in addition to the building block of mortality — an increasingly gloomy preoccupation of people.

Strong media hype and smothering coverage of a virus inflates a feeling of imminent danger, making a threat appear closer and more claustrophobic. This is not necessarily bad, it just is. After all, what of medieval plagues? Lack of information and education felled entire populations and swelled superstitious sentiment.

What we do know is that the death rate of the coronavirus is similar to the flu. This has been widely reported. Granted, room must always be left for potential unreported cases, but this is true of the all-too-familiar flu too, is it not? Symptoms-wise, both the flu and the coronavirus manifest similarly, making their presence known by means of fevers, chills, and respiratory dysfunction.

And when it comes to capacity for contagion, the two diseases are nearly in lockstep in this area too. All of this begs the question, what is so remarkable about the coronavirus after all? Why the flurry of fear over something that looks strikingly similar to our societies — that being the long-suffering flu?

The simple reason? The coronavirus is new and sensational. And it hovers on the brink of the present, not yet a “completed” historical epidemic that we can reference in hindsight. Even if we now know enough about the coronavirus to potentially dispel large waves of anxiety, this isn’t enough to wipe out unpredictability of the future. It also isn’t enough to dispense with the flashiness of a novel threat, with the lurid possibilities of death by a new agent in the game.

Thus, there is a rift between the statistical reality of the coronavirus and the way people are perceiving it. To be more direct, we can platter up the question, is it overblown? Taking a look at the evidence, it probably is. Apocalypse is not imminent and we simply don’t have a modern version of the bubonic plague on our hands.

An honest inquiry into whether the coronavirus has been subject to over-exaggeration feels weirdly, vaguely criminal, however. For one thing, people can harbor extreme sensitivity to others questioning the legitimacy of their existential fear. People can also be driven to think that even a very small threat of death is enough to make an over-exaggeration analysis a ghastly idea, one that is just oh-so-shocking-to-conceive and in-such-bad-taste.

Let’s also consider the government’s role in overblown crises. As it is, governments across the world have shuttered industry in response to the coronavirus and regular life has stalled, dampening commerce and triggering recent market routs. They’ve taken steps to conduct virus screenings and some nations have closed the doors of public schools. Governments don’t want be accused of negligence, after all. This is a strong motivation for their actions of extreme caution.

Political pressure from worried citizenry in addition to the large, looming possibility of future punishment for failing to act pushes governments into gear. And interestingly, it does appear to be enough in times of crisis to overlook the dents in the state coffers these efforts tend to induce.

The same goes for companies: Voluntarily shutting-down is a stab, albeit a costly one, at saving face just as much as it can potentially be for saving lives. This extra-protective behavior isn’t bad in theory, but it can feed into collective fear where a dire threat doesn’t necessarily exist. After all, just as people panic, so too can governments.

And disease and death by a fresh enemy (a newly-minted virus in this case) is hard to pry out of the territory of extreme caution, even when the statistics emerge signaling that there is less to worry about than we have been led to think. After all, it is usually the case that facts lag behind feelings in crisis moments. Emotions stick to us while facts (such as the risk of death via the coronavirus being equal to or lower than the flu) can feel distant, abstract, unconvincing.

The coronavirus saga has also been recently tainted by political squabbles. President Trump has been roundly criticized for his seemingly insufficient response to it. He wasn’t serious or aggressive enough some argued, and others were bothered by his unceremonious comparisons of the coronavirus to being, essentially, “like the flu”. (Which, to be fair, wasn’t off-the-mark.)

However, the U.S. government did take steps to establish travel restrictions and seeing as there is no multiplication of cases in the country to presently warrant mass mandatory testing, there is no logical reason to press for more efforts at this time. So, to characterize the American response as insufficiently bold is a bit weak.

When we look at the statistics, they aren’t sounding serious alarm bells. Accordingly, a measured, commonsensical response ought not to be trounced. In fact, for the reasons that I will shed light on later, such a response has clear merit!

In plain language, extreme caution isn’t a virtue. And obviously its corollary, panic, can be messy, even violently so. And we should try to avoid it if we can. Ultimately, we should be aim to be serious about something like the coronavirus, but we should try to manage that with rationality.

Extreme caution in light of what we do know isn’t rational. And outrage over a sensible coronavirus game-plan just because we don’t know precisely how the game ends isn’t rational either. Again, there’s a way to treat something seriously but not lose our minds over it. Which brings me to my next question, why even should we aim towards a “sensible” response?

There is, of course, the desire to stay sane that’s worth taking into consideration. Panic distorts reality and causes us to unnecessarily burn up our psychological energy on fear. And heightening the anxiety of people incongruent to the validity and/or imminence of a threat can have cruel consequences.

Epidemics and pandemics alike also leave economic ruin in their wake. When society and business activity groans to a halt, things do not seamlessly pick up where they left off when the threat dissipates to a satisfying degree.

Instead, incomes are gutted and jobs are lost. Families suffer and life trajectories are blunted. Companies grapple with unimpressive earnings and entire economies are given no choice but to acclimate to a new, deflated environment of hesitant, sluggish demand.

Where disease is concerned, panic feels righteous. But it has far-reaching consequences when that panic doesn’t have a warranted outlet. In such a case, panic isn’t protective but destructive.

Calls to mitigate the economic cost of undue panic over the coronavirus run the risk of being considered politically incorrect — especially in the heated environment of disease scares. But just as disease affects humans, so too does the economic environment that we are all suspended in and are an integral part of affect us.

The difference is that when we engage in a flurry of excessive, disproportionate panic over death that isn’t likely, we’re actively harming our collective futures when the threat does fade away for good. This is something to keep in mind in light of the coronavirus’ hold on our consciences.

Always ask questions before you panic. Understand the inevitable phenomenon of media hype and the reality that governments and businesses may be naturally inclined to take an extra-cautionary route that isn’t proportionate with the honest degree of necessary caution.

Where the ominous shadow of disease reigns, statistics and perspective are valuable and necessary. So too is your own role in fighting fear with rationalism, which can play a crucial role in reducing the specter of longer-term societal damage.

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between. laurennreiff@gmail.com

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