Deep inside our brain, in the middle of the temporal lobes, lies a tiny almond-shaped cluster of nuclei called the amygdala - the seat of fear. It is the primitive part of our brain, one that makes us sweat and our hearts beat faster. The reaction is a natural evolutionary response, designed to keep us safe. Fear helps us survive, but fear is not always rational.
The Covid-19 is now officially a ‘pandemic’. The WHO just upgraded the disease that has swept across 114 countries, killing over 4000 people and infecting close to 120,000 more. India has closed its doors, banning all international flights to and from the country. The numbers are unnerving. Italy has over 10,000 reported cases, second only to China, Iran is at 9000, South Korea has almost 8000… the ticker keeps rising. Every day is a new story, and we can only watch with an increasing sense of alarm as the novel virus spreads, and the red dots multiply across the map.
More homo-sapiens have probably died of infectious diseases than all other causes combined. A fever or a cough was a potential death sentence until a hundred or so years ago. Modern medicine changed that. But the fear of infectious diseases remains deeply entrenched in our brain. It is natural to be afraid. But where do we draw the line between fear and panic?
You’ve probably seen images of empty shelves and long queues in supermarkets across continents. People are scrambling to stock up, fighting with one another over toilet paper, buying things they do not necessarily need. The police have been called in on several occasions, most shops have imposed a limit on the purchases, eg. pharmacies like Boots are restricting the sale of hand sanitisers to just two per person. In Singapore, given the huge spike in demand for rice and noodles, the Prime Minister had to intervene and issue a statement on tv that there was no reason to panic, they had enough. But people are worried. The hoarding continues.
Panic buying is a psychological tool we use to take control of the situation and deal with an uncertain tomorrow. Just washing of hands seems too lame, it is not enough. We feel the need to act, but how far should we go. Crisis situations pushes up the price, and creates a shortage of essential goods and services, denying those who really need them (eg. masks for health care workers, ventilators and medicines for the sick etc). It drives irrational decisions, creates scarcity and diverts attention and resources away from the real issue.
Misplaced reactions are not limited to hoarding, it can usher in a whole new set of problems - stigmatisation of people (like those from north-eastern states in India being unduly discriminated against), loss of business opportunities (both big corporations and small enterprises), loss of livelihood for daily workers, shortage of essential goods and services and so on. Stigma and fear hamper our response and impact our ability to cope with difficult situations.
The impact is not limited to our bodies. Stocks are tumbling across the world, oil prices have dropped sharply, the biggest plunge since the start of the 1991 Gulf war, flights are being suspended, travel bans are being issued, mass events cancelled, and jittery governments across the world are hastily putting together measures to contain the risk, count confirmed cases, and quarantine those infected.
Research teams all over the world are trying hard to figure out the facts. And the rest of us are desperately trying to process any information that comes our way, both true and false. Every day there is something new on social media - a story, a rising ticker, or a shocking video, that makes it difficult to be objective. Constant monitoring of news updates and feeds amplifies the perceived risk, and significantly increases stress.
Anxiety disorders rank as one of the most common mental health problems across the globe, with 1 in 13 already suffering from it. It gets worse in a pandemic. There is so much attention on the physical manifestations of the infection, that we tend to forget the mental damage it causes to a far greater number of people.
Panic is more dangerous perhaps than the virus itself. However it can be contained. The right communication can make all the difference - at the right time, at the right frequency and supported by the right action.
Our smartphones are constantly beeping. With hundreds of stories each day about the virus it is only natural to believe the danger is closer and bigger than it really is. Governments and health care institutions must calm people down by sharing information and building trust. They need to use the available psychological tools to guide their efforts in communicating with the public during disease outbreaks. The source of information should be credible and backed by action. Communities must support one another. As per the WHO, ‘we can still change the course of this pandemic, if countries detect, test, treat, isolate, trace and mobilise people’.
Fear is a powerful emotion, but we are capable of rising above our primal instincts. It is okay to be afraid, our ancestors were afraid too, that’s how we survived, but fear is not enough - we must remember to be sensible too.
(Ekta Kumar is a writer, columnist, artist and works closely with the European Union on gender and civil rights-related issues.)
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