Coronavirus: Countering Your Fears
Why we find Covid-19 scary and how to counter the fear.
Posted Mar 02, 2020
Coronavirus Disease 2019 or Covid-19, the recently identified viral illness, has been causing a lot of anxiety and panic around the world. Videos of hospitals from China, where people with face masks, gloves, and full-body protective suits attend to the ill and dying, resemble scenes from sci-fi horror films. And given that nearly every news program is reporting on the viral outbreak (partly because fear sells), we are being exposed to these types of horrifying scenes repeatedly.
Fears of Covid-19
According to a cognitive theory of the origins of fears, our perceptions of vulnerability to a threat might be related to whether we perceive the threat as dangerous, disgusting, uncontrollable, or unpredictable. Let's examine fears of the Coronavirus Disease 2019 from this perspective:
Covid-19 is a serious illness, and like many other diseases, it can harm you and people you love and even result in death. If you have a weak immune system (e.g., you have AIDS), are a highly anxious person, or have had a traumatic experience with serious illness, you might feel more worried about the dangers of catching this new disease. It is certainly difficult to ignore a disease that has caused roughly 3,000 deaths in a couple of months.
Is Covid-19 a deadly disease?
Putting things in perspective: The 3,000 deaths related to Covid-19 are of a total of nearly 90,000 confirmed cases. The death rate for Covid-19 was initially estimated to be 3-4 percent. A recent report suggests a 1.4 percent death rate, though the actual fatality rate might be even lower than 1 percent, according to a February 28 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine. This rate is still high when compared with the seasonal flu (roughly 0.1 percent) but certainly less worrisome than SARS (10 percent fatality rate).
The Covid-19 outbreak has been causing a lot of fear and anxiety, partly because it has been spreading quickly and partly because it is new. Nevertheless, presently, its impact does not compare with seasonal flu, which is not new but harmful no less. According to the CDC’s weekly U.S. flu report of February 22, 2020, “So far this season there have been at least 32 million flu illnesses, 310,000 hospitalizations and 18,000 deaths from flu.”
Worldwide, up to 650,000 individuals die from complications of seasonal flu each year. Take a moment to think about that. We can compare this number with other causes of death around the globe, like 470,000 people who lose their lives to homicide and many more who do to suicide. Nearly 1.35 million individuals die each year as a result of car accidents (an additional 20 to 50 million suffer injuries).
Common sources of disgust include dirtiness, food, insects and animals, body fluids, sexual acts, injury, and death; therefore, it is no surprise that a flu-like illness (with symptoms like coughing and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea) is disgusting. Disgust also plays a role in prejudice, a disease originating from another country and initially spread by foreigners may result in greater fear in disgust-prone people.
Putting things in perspective: Though many symptoms of the flu (and disease, in general) are disgusting, we must be careful not to generalize our feelings of disgust concerning the viral illness or even disgust at certain Chinese practices—appetite for warm meat, going to wet markets—to disgust toward Chinese people.
While the Chinese in China are fighting this illness, the Chinese in Western countries worry about family and friends in China, are concerned with the spread of the virus in the U.S., and on top of that have to deal with the rise of anti-Chinese sentiments here.
Expressing hostility toward the Chinese is not only harmful to them, but it is also harmful to you because it amplifies your fear and paranoia.
We need to fight the virus, not each other.
Unpredictable and uncontrollable illness
We cannot know for certain who is carrying the Covid-19 virus (or other contagious and communicable diseases, like the seasonal flu), or when or where an epidemic will start or end. We do not even know if we are carrying the virus or if a current illness is related to Covid-19. Nor can we completely control the spread of the virus, or how the illness will develop in a person. Worse yet, there is no cure for Covid-19.
Putting things in perspective: Though unpredictable and uncontrollable in some ways, the virus’s spread is also somewhat predictable (based on new information on confirmed cases). Had we no information about coronaviruses in general, the current virus’s genetic sequences, or ways of testing possible cases, then it would be truly unpredictable. Furthermore, as is with the seasonal flu, the illness does not appear to be chronic. It will pass.
As far as control, you still have some control in important areas: There are things you can do to reduce the likelihood of catching the Covid-19 virus and becoming ill: Washing your hands regularly, not touching your face, staying three feet away from people who are coughing/sneezing, etc. And if you experience worrisome symptoms, like shortness of breath, you can choose to seek medical care.
Covid-19 is a viral disease and appears to have a fatality rate of roughly 1 percent or less. It is dangerous, but it is not so dangerous we should put our lives on hold. Remember, we all take risks every single day and are exposed to hundreds of potential threats. The goal is to live our lives while also doing what is necessary to reduce the likelihood of being seriously harmed (and harming others). Do not increase your anxiety by staying home and constantly watching the news about the spread of the virus around the globe. Focus on your own location and find a reliable source of information and follow what the health authorities say. Remember, you are resilient. Do not let yourself be blinded by panic.