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Pandemic Panic: Is it a Good Idea?

March 24, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

If ever there was a time to panic, maybe this is it. With a global pandemic threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of people all over the world, a highly contagious virus that we can’t see and can kill–many are resorting to panic.

 

But is panic really the correct response? 

 

The answer is most definitely not. Let’s not forget that like COVID-19, panic is highly contagious. At a time when our government and healthcare services are already overwhelmed with trying to protect all of us, what would global panic look like?

How would looting, destroying property, and causing general mayhem and other lawless behavior stop or slow down the spread of the virus? Well, it wouldn’t. All it would achieve is that the police would have to work overtime, utilizing resources that could better be used elsewhere. Further, many more people would be exposed to virus vectors, the sources of infection, without being aware that they have the virus themselves. This is because there is a percentage of the population who are either asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms. They don’t even suspect that they are indeed carriers of a deadly virus.

It’s important to note that there is a huge difference between being aware of the situation and acting accordingly and widespread panic. Fear and anxiety are very normal reactions to what we are experiencing, with many of us locked up in our homes, scared to leave, wondering what the next day will bring. 

 

Of course, you could also say that we never really know what the next day will bring, but that’s not quite the same thing as hundreds of thousands of people in lockdown or quarantine, social distancing as the order of the day, restaurants being shuttered, weddings cancelled, and healthcare workers pushed to the brink of exhaustion, with hospitals threatening that we will have to start turning people away if we don’t somehow manage to combat the rapid spread of this virus.

We are very fortunate not to be living in 1918, when the Spanish flu–the last known pandemic–swept through, killing up to 39 million people in a matter of six months. Now we have access to 24/7 updates and constant information from social media. The same devices that let us enjoy binge watching series on Netflix help spread fear and, with it, panic. In fact, a very useful piece of advice given to people who suffer from chronic anxiety is to limit the time they spend on social media during this crisis and not to follow the news–or at least not to follow it obsessively. Following the exact number of new cases and deaths that occur every day from COVID-19 is a surefire way to raise your anxiety levels and won’t do any good for anyone’s mental or physical health

Amy Ballagh from Georgia Southern University has conducted research on how news coverage of epidemics changes public behavior. She says that part of the reason that people are panicking (stockpiling supplies of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, masks, gloves, and medications) is that our leaders have not presented a consistent, unified message, which leads to people feeling that they have to take matters into their own hands. 

Ballagh makes a fascinating point. She says that what will happen is that people will become so used to hearing about the virus that their minds will start to tune the information out. This could cause a sense of dangerous complacency.

 

It is a nerve-wracking time for us all. To live with this level of fear and uncertainty is extremely uncomfortable. But it is also necessary because it will keep us away from others, which makes us unlikely to contract the virus and, if we already have it, unable to pass it on to others. This will stop the rapid spread and allow our healthcare systems to not become overwhelmed. 

 

None of us knows how this story will play out. But for now, the most we can do is to stay away from others and to try to keep a level of sanity in our homes and positivity in our hearts.

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