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Fearful reactions to the new coronavirus can put lives at risk

It’s okay to be worried, but don’t let fear trump public health advice

Sanitizer products out of stock in US Photo by Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

People in the US are worried about the new coronavirus outbreak. That concern is warranted: the virus is a scary new threat, it can cause serious harm, and there aren’t any medications that can stop it. That’s not to mention the cancellations of schools, popular events, and the general disruption to people’s lives it’s causing.

But fear, and the things people do when they’re afraid, changes and drives the societal impact of the virus. Viruses can’t function on their own: they require a host, a person, in order to survive and reproduce. That person makes choices and behaves in certain ways. When that person’s behaviors are driven by fear, it can lead to discrimination and decision-making out of line with public health recommendations — which can make the outbreak even worse.

That’s the major common thread connecting outbreaks from the Black Death to the current novel coronavirus outbreak: fear and panic can magnify the harm done by a virus. “People can get worked up and do bad things in response,” says Philip Alcabes, professor of public health at Hunter College and author of Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu.

In the US, panic over rising case counts has triggered a rush on grocery stores and pharmacies. In New York City, for example, there’s hardly a bottle of hand sanitizer to be found, and pasta and beans are in short supply. It’s good to prepare for disruption to everyday life, but there’s a difference between preparedness and panic buying — and the later can cause shortages.

More troublingly, people in the US and around the world have also been buying up supplies of surgical masks and respirators, despite pleas from experts not to. Masks may offer some people comfort, but they don’t provide much protection against illness if they’re not used properly (and laypeople usually don’t use them properly). When they’re squirreled away in people’s homes, they’re not available for health care workers who actually need them and know how to use them.

The World Health Organization says that there are worldwide shortages of masks and other protective equipment, and that puts health care workers’ at risk. That’s a problem for everyone, and it can exacerbate outbreaks. If health care workers, who are in close contact with COVID-19 patients, get sick in high numbers because they don’t have proper protection, it adds to the caseload for hospitals. It also leaves fewer nurses and doctors to treat patients.

Panic also unearths racism and discrimination. The novel coronavirus originated in China, and when it started to spread, anti-Asian racism took off around the world. The same thing happened during the SARS outbreak in 2002. It’s an old story, Alcabes says. “When the Black Death first came to Europe, there were rumors in Switzerland that a Jewish guy had a secret recipe for poison and was putting it in drinking wells,” he says. “It caused a series of really dreadful attacks on Jewish communities.” The fear doesn’t create prejudice; it just reveals it. “It allows it to manifest. And it can do so in ways that can be really harmful to people,” he says.

Also harmful are rumors and misinformation, which can spread quickly during epidemic outbreaks. They had devastating effects during the 2014–2015 Ebola outbreaks in West Africa: people kept sick relatives home because they were afraid of treatment centers. When they tried to care for them without proper equipment, they quickly became ill themselves. That let the disease spread among families, which made the outbreak harder to contain.

At the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, false theories that the virus was a bioweapon developed by the Chinese government or by Bill Gates spread online and were repeated by Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). A right-wing blog doxxed the Chinese scientist it accused of creating the weapon. In Iran, fake letters from health officials spread on social media, and bad information on the best ways to prevent infection from the virus circulated online. An email hoax led to protests in Ukraine that turned violent.

People often turn to misinformation out of fear and when they can’t access or don’t trust information from experts or public health officials, Rob Blair, assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University, told The Verge. Believing misinformation can then create distrust in experts. That cycle may lead people to disregard public health advice and continue to, for example, buy and hoard masks or to ignore recommendations around isolation and quarantine.

In the US, the spread of misinformation around the novel coronavirus has been facilitated by President Trump — who has contradicted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by claiming, incorrectly, that vaccines would be available soon, that testing was widely available, and that people with symptoms of COVID-19 can go to work. The mismatch in messaging between the CDC and the president can make it hard for people to know what to trust and believe. That confusion can create and exacerbate panic.

After the Ebola outbreaks, experts wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that public health officials and authorities need to grapple with fear in their response to future outbreaks. “Fear-related behaviors have the potential to accelerate the spread of a disease,” they wrote.

During a disease outbreak, anxiety and worry are reasonable reactions, and it’s important to take precautions to reduce the spread of disease. People should wash their hands, stay home if they’re sick, and keep away from crowds; officials should consider rescheduling or canceling mass gatherings — all expert-recommended and evidence-based strategies that can blunt the worst societal side effects of the COVID-19 outbreak. But striving to avoid acting out of fear and pushing public officials to communicate in ways that help limit it can help make sure those strategies have the greatest possible effect.