Fear is useful. Panic is not.
COVID-19, popularly known as the Coronavirus, is coming. If we’re honest, we should recognize a few facts.
- At least 83,000 people are infected. Most are in China, but there are also outbreaks in South Korea, Iran, Japan, and Italy. There are cases in America, too.
- More than 2,800 people have died. The fatality rate among those whose infections are detected is about 2%, but most of those who succumb are old or compromised by other medical conditions.
- The virus spreads from person-to-person contact. It may spread even when people don’t know they have it.
- Serious medical professionals are now talking as if it’s inevitable that it will reach the United States, and we should concentrate on mitigation, not prevention.
- The stock markets are certainly behaving as if the virus will create a global economic slowdown; they are down more than 10% this week. Investors are not optimists or pessimists — collectively and dispassionately, they predict the future of the economy. This prediction is not encouraging.
Do the math. People travel globally. It’s possible that America will somehow be untouched — or that all cases will be contained — but there’s a pretty good likelihood that the virus will start spreading within American communities.
The question for governments and news organizations is, how quickly will it get here, and what should people do about it?
The right amount of fear — and facts
There are two extremes when it comes to communicating something that people may be afraid of.
You can pretend it is not a problem. For example, Rush Limbaugh called Coronavirus “the common cold.” This is irresponsible. There’s not a 2% fatality rate from the common cold.
You can go into a full-blown panic, and send people into survivalist mode. This is wrong, too. Take a look at China, which is pretty good picture of the worst it could get. Government there has severely restricted travel, told people to stay in their homes, and ramped up health interventions, in a way that only an authoritarian regime can. It slowed the spread of infection down and cases are slowly declining. This is pretty severe, but it’s hardly the end of civilization.
Somewhere between zero fear and maximal fear is an optimum level of fear — the type of fear that creates action. Action in this case means health practices such as hand-washing; stocking up on food, supplies, and medications; and considering what you would do if travel were restricted in your area, such as working from home. This is not all that different from how people in Minnesota would prepare for a big snowstorm. They take precautions, but don’t panic, because they know how to handle the problem.
How do you generate the right amount of fear? With a sober analysis of the situation and clear instructions. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been pretty good at this; check out its site.
Has President Trump been spreading the right amount of fear?
Trump is excellent at generating maximal fear (of, say, immigrants) or no fear at all (of, for example, a potential recession). It’s the middle ground — the sober pronouncement of risk and steps to take regarding it — that he has trouble with.
Here are some “don’t be too afraid, but don’t be completely unafraid” statements from him in his press conference about the virus:
We’re going to spend whatever’s appropriate. Hopefully, we’re not going to have to spend so much, because we really think we’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum. And again, we’ve had tremendous success, tremendous success beyond what people would have thought.
We’re rapidly developing a vaccine and they can speak to you, the professionals can speak to you about that. The vaccine is coming along well, and then speaking to the doctors, we think this is something that we can develop fairly rapidly, a vaccine for the future, and coordinate with the support of our partners.
It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for and we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner. [Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said this at the same press conference: “Although this is the fastest we have ever gone from a sequence of a virus to a trial, it still would not be any applicable to the epidemic unless we really wait about a year to a year and a half.”]
Well, I don’t think it’s inevitable [that the virus will spread in the U.S.]. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared. . . . I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think that we’re doing a really good job in terms of maintaining borders in terms of letting people in, in terms of checking people, and also, that’s one of the reasons I’m here today, getting the word out so people can… They’ll know. They’re going to know. No, I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think that there’s a chance that it could get worse. There’s a chance it could get fairly substantially worse, but nothing’s inevitable.
It’s going to be very well under control. Now. It may get bigger, it may get a little bigger. It may not get bigger at all. We’ll see what happens, but regardless of what happens, we’re totally prepared, please.
I think every aspect of our society should be prepared. I don’t think it’s going to come to that, especially with the fact that we’re going down, not up. We’re going very substantially down not up, but yeah,
Not the best communication
When the weather forecaster says there is a 20% chance of a big snowstorm, you know to prepare, but that the occurrence is uncertain. Furthermore, you admire the forecaster for seeing what is possible, even if they can’t accurately predict the future. Better to know what could happen then not to know.
Trump’s statements are more self-serving (“We did the right thing”) and hopeful (“It might not get here.”) Since there is a significant chance of infection spreading, it is better to prepare, not to hope. Optimism doesn’t prevent the spread of disease. A leader in this situation must lead in a nonpartisan way for the good of the country.
I look forward to more authoritative communication regarding the virus from the CDC and other trustworthy scientific agencies. If the Trump administration allows these organizations to do their job — and if it takes appropriate action in the face of possible infection, such as prohibiting large conferences and rallies — then we’ll weather this.
If it blocks scientists from sharing accurate information and fails to take appropriate action — well, then we’re all screwed. Because even if you can’t stop Coronavirus, if you fail to lead by generating the right amount of fear, you can make things much worse.