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Opinion

Op-Ed: It’s fear, not coronavirus, that’s roiling world markets and upending daily life

Customers waited in line at a Costco in Burbank last week to buy water and other supplies for fear that COVID-19 would spread and force people to stay indoors.
Customers waited in line at a Costco in Burbank last week to buy water and other supplies for fear that COVID-19 would spread and force people to stay indoors.
(Robyn Beck / AFP via Getty Images)

Can we please stop blaming a microbe for things it can’t do?

Coronavirus doesn’t make the stock market plunge or schools shut down or empty entire aisles of supermarkets.

Despite headlines proclaiming “Coronavirus Roils Markets,” and “Coronavirus Tightens Grip on Daily Life Around the Globe,” the virus is incapable of such feats.

Those are caused by fears — some rational, some irrational.

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On Wednesday, the president announced new restrictions on travel and measures aimed at containing the virus that we hope are based on the best science. Some of the things Americans have done in recent days are not.

Frightened people sometimes make good decisions. They lay in flashlight batteries prior to a hurricane, say. But they also do things that put themselves and others at greater risk. When investors sell on fear, they disregard the proven benefits of investing for the long term and, in the bargain, increase the odds that workers will be laid off. When people clear shelves of masks and hand sanitizers, they make it more likely that they and others will find themselves in medical facilities that need more of these supplies than they can get. And when they lay in a six-month supply of toilet paper? They leave other people scrambling to find it.

What’s particularly ironic is that frightened people are more susceptible to viral and other diseases. Numerous studies suggest that fear and stress weaken our immune systems, leaving us more vulnerable to infection.

More than 12,000 people have been infected in Italy. Containment measures that seemed unusually strict two weeks ago turned out to be not strict enough.

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Chronic fear also contributes to two of the three leading causes of death in the U.S. — heart disease and accidents — and the third, cancer, is only a partial exception. There’s little evidence that stress directly triggers cancer, but when we’re freaked out, we tend to do things like smoke and drink, which increase our cancer risk.

Fear-ridden people not only make dicey decisions themselves; they pressure public officials to do so. In recent days, some school administrators have made the decision to close schools even without known cases of the virus. There’s much we don’t know about the course this outbreak will take, and it may be that some school closures make sense, but measured responses aren’t the way of a panicked populace.

It’s true that children who aren’t attending school won’t acquire or spread the virus at school. But most of them won’t be removing themselves from close contact with others — on public transportation, on play dates, in movie theaters and shopping centers, even at their parents’ worksites in families that don’t have childcare options. And there are costs borne by children who rely on school lunches, special education teachers, or school nurses and by those who must care for children when class is canceled. In many communities those caretakers are from the group most vulnerable to serious disease and death from viral infections: elderly grandparents and neighbors.

With the coronavirus spreading rapidly, Trump is feverishly moving to protect the economy from a downturn. But only some of the ideas are worth considering.

Hospital administrators are another group who find themselves in binds. Do they delay hospitalization or surgery for other patients in order to serve more COVID-19 patients? “What worries me,” Dr. Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, told an interviewer, “is the panic and fear associated with this is going to cause healthcare systems like ours to be overwhelmed where those people who really do need our care are going to be pushed aside.”

If, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said recently, “worse than the virus right now is the fear pandemic,” why are we so susceptible?

Blame evolution. COVID-19 is new and unknown, and we’re hard-wired to fight or flee when confronted with novel threats.

Evolution provided this response to help us survive. When we’re on a hike and spot a rattle snake, the fight or flight response serves us well. But like other of our natural impulses, it doesn’t benefit us in every situation.

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As adults, we’re supposed to know better than to give in to our urges in counterproductive ways. Buying up whatever makes you feel safer is like trying to curtail a sex addiction by having more sex, or alcoholism by having another drink. You might stave off your craving for a while, but you’re making matters worse rather than better.

Some social scientists contend that fear itself is addictive. It certainly feeds on itself. We share our fears about the virus with frightened friends, who respond with their own concerns. Or we go online to check out something we heard on the radio and come across a dozen other scary stories.

What’s the proper response then?

Just say no to people dealing fear without real knowledge.

Refuse too, people who politicize the disease. Those on the right who blame COVID-19 on deep state actors, and their counterparts on the left who call it “Trumpvirus,” add needless anxieties and make the nation’s fear-fogged conversation even more dimwitted. We should be debating how to provide healthcare and sick leave for those who need it, not conspiracy theories.

Politicizing the outbreak also serves to undermine the authority of responsible officials. There are definitely things that make sense in dealing with a virus that’s spreading more rapidly than our knowledge of it. We need to heed directives to wash our hands, keep our distance from people who are coughing and sneezing, stay home if we’re not feeling well. Many workplaces will choose to encourage telecommuting where it makes sense — in part to work out the kinks should it actually become necessary. And we should follow the advice of our healthcare providers. We don’t need to be wondering if they are agents of the deep state.

The world’s top public health official put it well. “Fear and panic are dangerous,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization. “It’s fine to be concerned and worried, but let’s calm down and do the right things.”

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Barry Glassner is the author of “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.”


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