The thin border between precaution and hysteria

March 21, 2020

Europe, along with the rest of the world, is facing a tough challenge – a new, reportedly quite dangerous virus, which spreads overwhelmingly quickly. Its name is COVID-19, more popularly known as “coronavirus”. Look at the news these days and all you see is coronavirus related hysteria. Of course, the situation is not to be underestimated, but is it possible that it is mostly people’s misunderstanding that has emptied shelves in stores, cancelled flights, and plummeted stock prices as steeply as the 2008 financial crisis?

 

According to a study of more than 44 000 cases in China through February 11th, 2.3% of people who contract the COVID-19 virus die. Some sources say the percentage may be slightly higher or lower, but the point everyone misses is that nearly all of these cases are old people with underlying symptoms such as heart disease. Nevertheless, mass media and especially social media platforms are full of speculation rather than real facts – there is the belief that if you catch the virus, you’ll most likely end up dead, which is quite different from the reality where young, healthy people could experience it as a common cold. Of course, as a society, we are bound to protect the elderly and those vulnerable, but panic and disinformation surely won’t be the best tools for the task.

 

People in my home country Bulgaria are panicking - anti-bacterial gels are out of stock and face masks are being sold at unheard-of-prices. It seemed suspicious to the general public that despite all the chaos, there had been no confirmed cases as of March 7th, when I set out to write this article. People were wondering whether the government was hiding sick patients or the whole hype was just a trick to gain some revenue for the pharmaceutical industry. Now there have been several cases, but the number still doesn’t justify the media attention the virus has been getting. Nor the measures to close all theatres, cinemas and sports events, but leave shopping centres and markets open. The ‘doomsday’ fear that media had quickly built up in the past month forced the government to take these seemingly-adequate measures, so that it meets the general public’s expectations. 

 

This is not to say I do not respect the authorities’ efforts - every incoming traveler’s temperature is measured on the border checkpoints and people coming in the country from abroad specify where they’ll be staying for their 14-day voluntary quarantine. My doctor even called to ask whether I was experiencing any symptoms a week after my return from Italy. What I am saying is, the government must take adequate measures at all times, no matter the media attention the problem receives. Here’s an example. On the 10th of February 2020, one of the worst days during this crisis so far, 108 people in China died of the coronavirus. On the same day (on average) more than 26,383 people died of cancer; 24,641 died of heart disease; 4,300 died of diabetes and 2,000 committed suicide.

 

At the end of the day, the COVID-19 is just one more way to die. It’s not the new plague (yet, hopefully). However, people prefer to listen to worried moms on Facebook rather than health officials when it comes to times like these; and disinformation is dangerous. Social psychologist David DeSteno wrote for the New York Times that “the mix of miscalibrated emotion and limited knowledge, the exact situation in which many people now find themselves with respect to the coronavirus, can set in motion a worsening spiral of irrational behavior”. Basically, the more time one has to reflect over a problem beyond their own capacity (in terms of control or knowledge of the matter), the more likely emotions, such as fear, to take over reason.

 

The other consequences of mass-hysteria

Panic also disrupts the economy. US markets have suffered their worst week since the global financial crisis of 2008, as fears over the impact of the coronavirus continue to grip investors. On February 25th, CNBC reported that the S&P 500 lost an estimated $1.737 trillion in value in two days. On Monday, March 9th, the Dow Jones industrial average declined 2,014 points, or 7.8%, its biggest single-day loss since October 2008. F8 – Facebook’s biggest event of the year supposed to gather developers from all over the globe has been cancelled. The iconic annual Geneva auto saloon has also been cancelled. All the people who were supposed to travel to these and many other events have cancelled hotel bookings and flight tickets. The air travel industry is among the most severely hit, with Lufthansa grounding a quarter of its fleet.
 

As they say, everything is politics. As a student of political science, I was thinking no politician would dare close-off Milan itself, let alone Italy, because of the huge audience cost. After all, the consequences of closing Europe’s third-largest economy would be terrible for the whole eurozone. However, it happened. It happened not only because the virus is dangerous, but because the public seemed to have expected such measures - not only the general public, which wants to see itself protected by a caring government, but also neighboring countries (Austria and Slovenia) that expect Italy to take responsibility and not to load them with this heavy burden. Fear, rather than true danger, made people hurt themselves in a way (economically at least).

 

Beppe Severgnini, a contributing writer to the New York Times, wrote on March 2nd: “Seven centuries ago, Giovanni Boccaccio, a founding father of the Italian language, used the plague (the real one) as inspiration for his masterwork, ‘The Decameron’. In it, 10 young people take refuge in a country villa to escape contagion and tell stories to pass the time. Today they would be posting nonsense on Facebook, ramping up fear in folks who are already afraid.” Therefore, while I understand the importance of the matter, I’d advise everybody to calm down, wash their hands, stay home, and last but not least, put a lime wedge into their Corona.

 

In this series, our writers share their thoughts on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. They rely on personal experiences and observations during this difficult time. The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect positions of European Generation.

 

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