Should I Stay (Inside) or Should I Go (Back Outside)?

The shifting psychology of our coronavirus fears.

Posted May 14, 2020

Those of a certain age may recall The Clash asking, in a punk classic, “Should I stay or should I go?” It’s what more and more of us are asking ourselves these days. Should I stay inside, or go back into the world? Each of us knows that “If I go (back outside), there will be trouble.” But we’re also feeling cooped up, cut off, corrosively uncertain about the future and what ‘normal’ will look like, and eager to get on with our lives. Which means that we’re also feeling like “If I stay (inside much longer) it will be double.”

So come on and let me know, should I stay or should I go? The answer depends on what we’re more afraid of, COVID-19 or the loss of control over our own lives.

Fear of the disease is still high, of course, warranted on the medical merits and, beyond those scary details, greatly magnified because of all the remaining uncertainties; about what it does to our bodies, how it spreads, and whether those who have recovered become immune, and for how long. Uncertainty, not knowing what we need to know to protect ourselves, is worrying. Fear of COVID-19 is also heightened by the inescapable "OMG!" drumbeat of alarming news, and by loss of trust in the federal government. 

But another fear is growing now, less obvious but no less powerful. It’s the sense of vulnerability we feel when we don't have control over our own lives and futures. We may have lost our livelihoods, our freedom of movement, our normal social contact, lost the ability to do everything that “normal” used to mean. We’ve even lost the sense of what normal will look like in the future. All we can know for sure about the next several months, probably longer, is that life won’t be anything like it used to be. But just what it will be, no one really knows. That uncertainty brings a form of powerlessness and unsettling lack of control. Of all the psychological factors that make us worry more or less, a sense of control may be the most compelling. 

The importance of control for our sense of safety is likely why many of us stock up on toilet paper or guns or constantly check the news for the latest information. It feels like doing something, taking control. But there is only so much of this we can do, and we’ve done it. Now we’re stuck inside –the operative word there being “stuck." We’re stuck not only because minimizing contact with others is crucial for our own safety, but because our governments have asked/urged/ordered us to stay in, and because while we share the instinct to sacrifice in the name of the common good, that instinct also acts like a social pressure. Go out now and you’re violating the new morality. Go out without wearing a mask and you risk being physically confronted, or having some angry passerby report you to the police. And even when we do go out, the freedom to do most of what we used to do is gone. No bars or restaurants, no hair dresser, no movies or concerts or sports events or even pick-up games in the park. Normal is closed. Control over our lives has been taken away. 

The anxiety caused by that lack of freedom is magnified by the loss of normal social contact. Zoom cocktail parties won’t cut it. And of course all of this is magnified a thousand times for the millions who have had their livelihoods taken away, indefinitely and perhaps permanently. Talk about a loss of control.

So our initial fear of the disease, still strong, is now essentially competing with the anxiety caused by that loss of control. That’s why you hear more and more people saying, “We’ve flattened the curve! We’re past the peak. Phew!!! We made it!”—despite all the warnings that we are nowhere near out of danger. Playing down the threat of the disease may allow us to play up our need to have normal control over our lives back.

This is particularly strong, of course, among people who simply don't like to be told what to do, ever, about anything, especially by the government. Ergo the small but angry “Open Up” protests getting attention from the always-hungry-for-noise news media. The same emotional balancing act between fear of the disease and fear of not controlling our lives is, like a seesaw, tilting the same way for many of us. It’s why people are talking more about going to bars and restaurants or concerts or ball games or the hair dresser or simply being able to go somewhere for exercise without being yelled at for not wearing a mask. The real issue for many of us is not about having a restaurant meal or nicer hair or going bowling. It’s about having the freedom to do so. It’s about having the choice. It’s about having control.

The danger here is obvious. Or should be. SARS-Cov-2 has proven its fantastic ability to spread, and when we give it a chance, it will. Many of those who jump at the chance to head back out will surely get sick, and some will die, washed away in the second wave we’ve been warned about. The history of pandemics makes this starkly clear. Anxious to return to normal, we let down our guard too soon, and a new surge of victims mounts. 

The unsettling powerlessness we feel grows stronger daily, eroding our fear of the still-real threat of COVID-19 and putting us in harm’s way, even as we try to feel more in control, and safer. The motto of the French Revolution was Live Free or Die, later adopted by the state of New Hampshire. That might have been an inspirational idea for revolution. Under the lurking threat of SARS-Cov-2 in the months and years ahead, however, that instinctively appealing idea is dangerous.