“Go sell crazy someplace else, we’re all stocked up here.”—Jack Nicholson, As Good As It Gets
Like many Americans, this past week found me standing between empty grocery store shelves as older adults around me shook their heads, stating that they’ve never seen anything like this.
March of 2020 will go down in history as the time when people fist-fought over toilet paper rolls and lined the block hoping to get into empty warehouse stores! Yes, amidst all the memes and sensational news reports, it seems that for many, fear has overtaken paying attention to the right information regarding this latest outbreak.
In February this year, I completed a continuing education course on coronaviruses for my RN license. At that time, I also read interviews with academic epidemiologists who already believed that the virus had probably quietly spread beyond the point of being containable. They predicated that it would most likely end up joining the lineup of seasonal illnesses along with the common cold and flu. Unlike previous human coronaviruses, this novel virus was said to be uniquely optimized for its own survival and prolific spread, so that it was more likely to weaken, but not kill its host. This explains why 80% of those infected have only mild respiratory symptoms and some develop no symptoms at all. This is also why the novel virus spreads so quickly. By the time we confirm a case, it has most likely already been widely transmitted by asymptomatic or mildly ill individuals.
Serious news articles were faithful to report that every single death from COVID19 at that time, was occurring in adults who had underlying health conditions.
In the first weeks of March, experts also predicted that we would soon see a major spike in the number of confirmed cases, as the CDC authorized and provided for outside testing, as more facilities were equipped, and the number of individuals being tested increased. It was explained that we would then begin to find those cases that were not previously visible or were until that time in incubation.
Hello week of March 15 and onward! The media reports a dramatic rise in numbers of confirmed COVID19 cases, but it’s accompanied by widespread panic and bewilderment. “Why is this happening?” The masses rage! Panic buying ensues. Lock everything down and prepare for the apocalypse! Media and individuals now point to the rising numbers as validation for panicked reactions. It’s as if no one even heard or remembered that this curve was expected and predicted in the weeks before. Was I the only one who sought out my news from scholarly academic sources, while others climbed aboard the sensational tide of mainstream media? Or was something else at play?
In February, people had begun to come to me asking if they should be worried, and I said no—and I still say no. Hear me out! We should not be worried, we should be wise. We should not be panicked, we should be proactive. I advised people to bolster their immune systems with careful lifestyle habits and nutrition, to strictly observe infection control practices, and to guard the elderly and immunocompromised. Things that should be done every flu season to a much greater degree than is commonly done. Influenza and COVID19 (according to current data) both have similar modes of transmission.
Yet, even as these things are iterated and reiterated, you are unlikely to settle down and embrace a calm point of view. You feel safer if you worry. You are much more likely to listen to the person who tells you to worry and even to panic! This is because the brain favors fear. Because its primitive systems are wired to believe that the fear response increases its chance of survival. (Think fear of venomous serpents, saber-tooth tigers etc). The brain rewards you for fear. And while the primitive fear response does have utility in a scenario of sudden imminent danger; panic (which is the prolonged, uncontrolled firing of the fear response) is never advantageous for execution of effective defense actions and ultimate survival and success.
As someone who is intimately acquainted with anxiety and panic disorders, I can tell you unequivocally that panic has absolutely zero utility.
A lack of panic does not mean a situation is not being taken seriously. Panic is not an intelligent response, it is an instinctive one. And panic always devolves into chaos.
“No power so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.”
Calm, efficient, rational action, which springs from the higher more sophisticated regions of the brain, is always a superior path to overcoming obstacles. Decisions should be made, and actions should be taken based on sound information–not based on fear. Fears’ only purpose is to be, in appropriate measure, an initial impetus to respond. It gets our attention, so that our higher powers may then engage in order to analyze and solve the problem.
Now, I’m going to talk about another illness and it is not for the reasons you may initially assume, so please bear with me.
Look at endemic influenza: “CDC estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, and 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010... CDC estimates that the burden of illness during the 2018–2019 season included an estimated 35.5 million people getting sick with influenza, 16.5 million people going to a health care provider for their illness, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths from influenza... 57% of hospitalizations occurred in older adults aged ≥65 years. Older adults also accounted for 75% of influenza-associated deaths, highlighting that older adults are particularly vulnerable to severe outcomes resulting from an influenza virus infection. An estimated 8,100 deaths occurred among working age adults (aged 18–64 years)…”
We have public health statistics like this, and we are just now learning how to wash our hands properly?
The Chinese CDC study shows the highest mortality rate of COVID 19 at 14.8% in those 80 and older; and “among those ages 70 to 79, the COVID-19 death rate in China seems to be about 8%.” The mortality rates fall sharply from there, with no mortality in children under 9 years old. And the number of cases in China are steadily declining now. Indicating that the first season for them, is most likely winding to a close. Compare that with a 74.8% mortality for individuals over 70 years of age in influenza, and the rest of the flu statistics highlighted above.
It is not my intent to minimize any of these illnesses or deaths, (whether from flu or from COVID19) to negate any of the reasonable measures imposed to limit them, or to minimize the burden on the healthcare system—simply to put things in perspective.
I have to ask, where is the overwhelming emphasis on infection control practices, appropriate social distancing for high risk populations, and other measures to protect our elderly and immune compromised citizens every yearly flu season? In spite of our best efforts, flu vaccines continue to be only 40% effective on average, due to antigenic drift and shift. That’s less than half!
COVID19 has brought about a stronger panic response than we saw with the coronaviruses SARS and MERS, the novel H1N1 influenza, or ebola; all of which had higher mortality rates than COVID19 does at this time. Higher morbidity and mortality allow for higher rates of containment, and this is one of the reasons COVID19 has spread so rapidly. But look at history.
H1N1 was discovered in humans in the pandemic of 1919, and resurged in a variant form—swine flu—in the 2009 pandemic. Now it’s taken its place and continues to circulate as a seasonal flu virus (See flu statistics above). SARS also rose in China in 2002 and spread worldwide within a few months. But now, no transmissions have been reported since 2004.
“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
— H. P. Lovecraft
Every time a new virus emerges and begins to spread, there is a renewed wave of fear and reaction which seems to intensify and reach new heights in our increasinlgy media-driven generations. Whenever influenza and COVID 19 are contrasted, experts admit that the reason we are so concerned is because we still know comparatively little about the newest novel virus at this point, and the transmission rate is high. I believe that the reason we see these global panics is because humans have a primal fear of the unknown, and our culture and society have increasingly nurtured the mindset of fear.
People who are frightened will either be easily controlled, or out of control. People will do almost anything with a gun to their head—like a herd of cattle stampeding over a cliff. And if you make people afraid enough of something, they will believe whatever you tell them in order to avoid it. Panicked people hoard, and steal, and look out for number one. It is primitive instinct.
But we have the choice to implement our higher powers. To be discerning rather than desperate. To be cautious but not chaotic. And to be generous, rather than hoarding. When each takes only what they need, all will have enough. And when facts are kept in their proper context, we will be able to act wisely, and channel resources in the right direction.
“For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”
As the amplified version states, “a spirit of…sound judgment and personal discipline [abilities that result in a calm, well-balanced mind] …”
2 Timothy 1:7 ESV and AMP
Ultimately, as Franklin Roosevelt declared:
“We have nothing to fear but (or I would say, more than) fear itself”
(Revised and updated March 19, 2020)
Centers for Disease Control, http://www.cdc.gov
Future US Live Science, http://www.livescience.com
World Health Organization, http://www.who.int