Irrationality in the Time of Coronavirus

What the AIDS epidemic taught me that can help all of us today.

Posted Mar 24, 2020

This post was written by Mark J. Blechner, Ph.D.

 Mohamad Hassan/Pixabay
Source: Mohamad Hassan/Pixabay

Epidemics are biological, yet they have effects on our psychology and social relations. Fear can mobilize people to think clearly, but it can also bring out irrational reactions. 

We saw this 40 years ago when the AIDS epidemic started. At the time, I was a young psychoanalyst, learning how the human psyche is prey to irrational forces. The AIDS epidemic presented a vivid showcase of those forces, teaching lessons that could help in the present COVID-19 crisis.

Fearing the Unknown 

The first reaction to a new epidemic is terror, magnified by a lack of knowledge. What was causing AIDS to spread? What was its origin? How could it be treated? Without reliable facts, people made things up, blaming racial groups, recreational drugs, or a negative mental attitude. 

Another irrationality is about who is at risk. Ideally, it is “not me.” I will feel safer to make up a story that pins the danger on someone else. With AIDS, there was talk of “risk groups”—like gay men and Haitians—implying white heterosexuals were safe. They weren’t. With COVID-19, we began hearing that only those 60 and older or those already sick with other conditions need worry. Yet there are reports of people in their 30s and 40s who are also vulnerable and dying. 

Money Can’t Save You

Danger brings out the defense of omnipotence in some people, who think, “I am rich, powerful, and influential, so I don’t have to worry.” Wealthy people are flying out of town in private planes and spending enormous sums stocking up on food and supplies. Will money and power protect against the COVID-19 virus? 

Roy Cohn, a mentor to our current president, used his influence early in the epidemic to obtain experimental drugs and to hide the fact he had AIDS. He died of AIDS in 1986 anyway. 

In Iran and Italy, government leaders have already been infected. One U.S. senator has the virus, and other members of Congress are self-quarantining. Fame, power, and celebrity will provide no protection.

Leadership Failures and Successes

During an epidemic, government leaders should be a model of balanced rationality and empathy, paying close attention without panicking. False reassurance or dismissing the magnitude of the danger only makes things worse. 

President Reagan did not mention AIDS until 10,000 Americans had died of it. President Trump’s initial denials, followed by his over-optimism, will boomerang as the situation continues to worsen. By contrast, the blunt, truthful warnings of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo are inspiring courage and confidence.

False Prophecies

Great dangers bring out irrational wish-fulfillment. We all would like to believe a cure is around the corner, so we seize on every positive shred of information, even if it is false. In 1984, there was the new AIDS wonder drug, HPA-23. Rock Hudson flew to Paris for it; it didn’t work and actually made many patients worse. When you hear today that chloroquine or other drugs will cure COVID-19, try not to get too excited. A cure will come, but not before there have been many false rumors.

Positive Outcomes?

Nobody wishes for epidemics, but they can eventually have adaptive effects on societies. Before the AIDS epidemic, the National Institutes of Health had slow and inefficient ways of testing new drugs. In 1988, Larry Kramer published “An Open Letter to Anthony Fauci,” calling him an “incompetent idiot.” It was mean, but it got results. 

Dr. Fauci, who is still at the forefront of handling epidemics in America, acknowledges that AIDS activists changed the American system of testing and releasing medications. Humane celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor also used their influence. AIDS brought out a sense of community among those afflicted, and we saw amazing acts of kindness and selfless charity. 

The AIDS epidemic changed our society. It gave recognition to gay people as human beings who have a caring community. It cracked our society’s sense of invulnerability and improved our health care system. 

Will the COVID-19 epidemic, however painful, lead to improving our world? It could wake us up to the careless way we have treated our democratic privileges and the inequalities of our health care system. It could lead us to love one another better, despite our differences. Irrational reactions do not go away, but when we recognize them, we are more able, if we try, to use our intelligence and goodwill to help one another. 

About the Author: Mark J. Blechner, Ph.D., is Training and Supervising Psychoanalyst at the William Alanson White Institute and New York University, a former member of the NYC Mayor’s Task Force on HIV and Mental Health, founder and former director of the HIV Clinical Service at the White Institute, the first clinic at a major psychoanalytic institute specializing in the treatment of people with HIV, their families, and caregivers. He has published the books Hope and Mortality: Psychodynamic Approaches to AIDS and HIV and Sex Changes: Transformations in Society and Psychoanalysis.