Editor’s Note: Nadine Kaslow, PhD, is a professor and vice chair of psychiatry and behavioral services at Emory University School of Medicine. She is the chief psychologist of Grady Health System and a former president of the American Psychological Association (APA). The views expressed in this commentary belong to the author. View more opinion at CNN.
Just what is it about potential pandemics that scare us so? While the odds of dying from a car accident or heart disease are greater – at least in the United States – rare infectious diseases still loom larger in our collective nightmares.
The truth is, the odds don’t factor into what frightens us. Our rational minds aren’t calling the shots here – our irrational fears are. There is something supremely unsettling about the invisibility of germs and viruses and the way they spread that invokes our deepest, most primal survival instincts.
But here is a quick reality check: While the Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has produced a dozen confirmed cases in the US (mostly involving people who recently traveled to Wuhan, China, where the virus originated), the common flu has affected approximately 19 million Americans and killed about 10,000 people so far this season.
Anxiety can sometimes be a constructive response, as it inspires caution and careful analysis of a situation before jumping in. But as anyone who has experienced overwhelming anxiety can attest, it is not likely a response based on logic, facts and figures, or realistic threat levels.
The public may respond with panic, fear and suspicion– and sometimes even outright superstition, paranoia or moral judgement when it comes to unfamiliar illnesses. The victims, even after recovery, may be shunned and discriminated against. Communities, even families, can be torn apart.
People who are fearful may follow not only the guidelines recommended by health experts, but go far beyond them: My children can’t be in a classroom with your children, we don’t want a clinic in our village, you aren’t allowed entry back into the country under any circumstances.
When the 1918 influenza killed 759 people in Philadelphia in one day alone, John Barry, who chronicled the pandemic in his 2004 book The Great Influenza, wrote, “Fear began to break down the community of the city. Trust broke down. Signs began to surface of not just edginess but anger, not just finger-pointing or protecting one’s own interests but active selfishness in the face of general calamity.”
Dangerous misconceptions can emerge out of this pervasive fear, anxiety and ignorance – the less people know, the more they might panic. The results can be deadly. We saw this around victims of AIDS, SARS, and Ebola. Indeed, health workers and responders battling the latest Ebola outbreak suffered more than 300 attacks in 2019 by armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo, leaving at least six dead and 70 wounded.
Outbreaks can, indeed, be terrifying, and often involve mass casualties. And there’s no denying that some diseases have the potential to kill in horrific ways. In their relentless march from host to host, infectious diseases seem to underscore what we know, but – whistling past the graveyard – try to ignore. We are vulnerable, we are mortal, we will all die.
But when our emotions and fears take over, we have difficulty making rational decisions. We become anxious or angry and unable to process information. Experts might be trying to get out the facts in a clear and concise manner, but if you’re already in an emotionally vulnerable place, you might not be hearing them. Public health professionals have long recognized the importance of acknowledging people’s feelings and reassuring them with facts.
One helpful resource is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which presents the latest confirmed statistics and gives scientifically valid advice on preventing the spread of respiratory diseases like coronaviruses, including: washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or with alcohol-based hand sanitizer; avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands; and staying home when you are sick.
Facts do win out in the end, although this may take years. When was the last time anyone except for the most alarmist among us worried that the person sitting next to us on the subway or serving our salad had HIV/AIDS? And yet, there was a time when “AIDS hysteria” was commonplace, and a Florida family, whose three young sons were infected with AIDS, were subjected to bomb and death threats and a school boycott before their house burned down in a suspicious fire.
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We all live in a world with random, indiscriminate threats: terrorist attacks, plane crashes, unexpected losses and unexplained illnesses.
In the face of a perceived threat, try to listen calmly – with an open mind and an open heart – to the facts. And rather than run from your fears or get stuck in them, try to be present with your anxieties and transform your fears. Use them to make yourself more cognizant of your surroundings and to do what is appropriate to take care of yourself and those around you.
I assure you, misguided decisions based on fear can be just as dangerous as the original threat itself.