The thin border between precaution and hysteria

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.