Panicked Politicians are the Real Danger of the Outbreak

March 14, 2020

It does not help that numerous psychologists are telling us ‘don’t let coronavirus tip society into panic’. As a sociologist with a professional interest in how fear works I can confirm that nobody decides to panic.

People panic when the messages communicated to them incite them to be afraid of fear itself. Unfortunately, the message that we frequently encounter is one that makes me feel like I am in the middle of a very, very slow but very long Hollywood disaster movie.

In recent weeks the West European media has become obsessed with worst case scenarios. It is as if they are overcome by a disturbing malaise of disaster pornography and love exposing their listeners to speculative forecasts about the millions that could die if the coronavirus turns out more prevalent and more deadly than we now imagine.

Unfortunately the authorities in Italy have been watching too many Hollywood films . The measures that they have taken are likely to make a bad situation worse. Soon after the government announced that northern Italy faced a lockdown, thousands of Italians decided to get into their cars or get on a train to travel to the south of the country, thereby increasing the risk of spreading the infection. A friend told me on Saturday that the trains were packed full of students heading south. Presumably if you’re going to introduce such a measure you don’t give a 24 hour-notice prior to its implementation. This was an exercise in both stupidity and fear.

As someone devoted to the study of fear, I have become accustomed to the bombast and scaremongering that accompanies the unexpected outbreaks of diseases. The scaremonger’s playbook usually begins with the alarmist statement that this could be a ‘Big One’. This statement is then qualified by the observation that even if this one – in this case coronavirus – is not the ‘Big One’, it is only a matter of time before humanity becomes afflicted with the as yet unspecified mother of all epidemics. The expression they often use to draw attention to the supposed gravity of the situation is to say, ‘the question is not if but when’.

Typically the scaremongering script surrounding outbreak of new strains of viruses dwells on big numbers. And the numbers they provide are really big. I recall the 2004 outbreak of the bird flu in Asia. Soon, an editorial in the New Scientist warned its readership that the bird flu outbreak could kill 1.5 billion people! ‘Superbugs are on track to kill 10 million people by 2050 if things don’t change fast’ insisted a scaremonger in a speculative contribution on the soon-to-be-born-superbug over a decade later.

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