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How People Panicked Over the Pandemic

How the wrong kind of panic can be as lethal as a virus, or even more deadly.

Photo taken by Dr Raj Persaud August 22nd 2020
Sheep in Pendle area of UK
Source: Photo taken by Dr Raj Persaud August 22nd 2020

On February 17, 2003, a stampede at Chicago’s E2 nightclub was triggered when panic ensued as security guards used pepper spray to break up a fight. But many patrons believed terrorists were attacking, so 1500 simultaneously tried to escape. At the exit, those fleeing were knocked over and trampled by the ensuing crush. The pile of bodies reached six feet high. 21 victims died from compressional asphyxiation.

Analysing examples such as these, Anthony Mawson, Professor of Public Health, has written an analysis, entitled, ‘Understanding Mass Panic and Other Collective Responses to Threat and Disaster’, which argues that experts may have fundamentally misunderstood the panic reaction.

Mawson’s analysis predicts that behind the scenes governments were terrified that mass hysteria and panic would become endemic following Covid-19.

The collective response to threatened disaster is usually predicted to be panic, hysteria, and the breakdown of social order. This appears to be a natural reaction to physical danger and entrapment.

But Mawson argues that instead of running away from danger because of panic, we tend to react to a threat by seeking to affiliate with others. We run toward the familiar because they appear safe. But many governmental anti-viral measures, from all over the world, produced social isolation, and a sense of entrapment, which is in fact going to be the main source for anxiety/panic distress.

Mawson’s analysis, published in the academic journal Psychiatry, of research into the evacuation behaviour of occupants of the former World Trade Center, following the explosion on Feb 26, 1993, based on interviews with 350 participants, found that evacuating groups comprising a high proportion of acquainted persons with the deepest social ties were the slowest to begin evacuating.

Co-Principal Investigator of the National Center for Biodefense Communications, at Jackson State University (USA), Mawson cites further evidence that during the bombing raids on London in World War II, children displayed remarkably little distress, even if exposed to extremely violent scenes, if they were with a parent. It was only if children were separated from their families that serious psychological disturbances ensued—disruption of the familial bond appeared more traumatic than air raids.

Officials experience great difficulty persuading people to evacuate before catastrophes; family ties often keep individuals in the danger zone until it’s too late. Most residents remain in disaster areas, and those who escape early tend to be unattached to the locale. When residents are forced to evacuate, they tend to flee as a group.

But a major panic gripping large numbers can also be ignited by a seemingly minor event – hundreds and even thousands of troops can turn and run in panic from the frontline of battle, just by witnessing one soldier running away.

Perhaps this is explained as the initial bolting being experienced by the observer as a threat to social ties, and as signalling abandonment and separation. The subsequent action of the observer is not an attempt to escape danger, but is an effort to maintain proximity with those who started escaping.

Panic is basically an affiliative response.

In certain situations, such as fires in buildings, the tendency to seek the familiar in the face of imminent physical danger can have disastrous consequences, increasing the risk of severe injury or death. Ironically, because tendencies toward hysteria and mass panic on the part of the public are widely assumed, Mawson argues that officials are often reluctant to issue warnings, or delay doing so, for fear of causing panic.

Yet delays in providing correct sufficient information can result in entrapment and death as a result of inactivity or active attachment behavior. The problem in disasters is not that people tend to panic and act impulsively in response to danger, but that they delay and fail to take evasive action when it is urgently needed.

Despite all the behavioral expertise supposedly available to governments, the population of the USA experienced unprecedented panic during the pandemic. These are the suggestive results of new research using internet searches as a clue to the mental state of citizens. An academic study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Internal Medicine, analysed a precipitous rise in internet searches using terms like ‘panic attack’ and ‘anxiety attack’ in the early days of the pandemic’s arrival in the USA.

The investigation found that on one day, March 28th, 2020, just shortly after social distancing was first introduced, internet searches for terms such as ‘panic attack’ spiked, reaching 52% more queries than would be expected during an equivalent ‘normal’ period. The team of researchers, led by John Ayers and Alicia Nobles, monitored the daily fraction of all internet searches that included the terms anxiety or panic in combination with attack (including panic attack, signs of anxiety attack, anxiety attack symptoms) that originated from the US from January 1, 2004, through May 4, 2020.

The study, by academics based at the University of California, San Diego, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and the Institute for Disease Modelling, Washington, found all acute anxiety queries were 11% higher than expected for the 58-day period that started when President Trump first declared a national emergency (March 13, 2020) and ended with the last available date of data (May 9, 2020). This spike was an all-time high for acute anxiety searches, translating to approximately 375 000 more searches than expected.

The largest spike in acute anxiety queries occurred on March 28, with 52% more queries than expected. Moreover, most excess queries occurred between March 16 and April 14, when queries were cumulatively 17% higher than expected. During this time, national social distancing guidelines were first imposed (March 16, 2020) and extended (March 29, 2020), the US passed China with the most reported cases (March 26, 2020), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended using facemasks (April 3, 2020), and the US passed Italy for most deaths (April 11, 2020).

Although this study cannot confirm that any search was linked to a specific acute anxiety event or panic attack, the authors argue that it provides evidence for psychological effects arising from COVID-19, because our internet searches do reveal something about our mental state.

Mawson argues that under a variety of stressful conditions, individuals approach familiar persons and places and are calmed by their presence. There is an increase in “we-feeling,” solidarity, and morale, but also a parallel increased sensitivity to perceived deviance and a tendency toward social exclusion, scapegoating, and hate crime.

Officialdom has failed to understand the essential nature of panic, a fiercely strong emotion which is not about running away from something, which is maybe what they wanted us to do from Covid-19. Instead, acute anxiety involves running toward the familiar and safety, with an urge for group solidarity.

Yet imposing social isolation after terrifying the population may have been particularly damaging for mental health, and for the effectiveness of quarantining, because officials failed to grasp what panic is really in essence for.

On August 18, The Daily Telegraph Newspaper reported that in the UK Government figures show that people who live alone are twice as likely to test positive for coronavirus, with ‘experts’, the newspaper reported, claiming it is "more difficult" for them to remain isolated.

Dr. Peter Bruggen passed away in 2018. While this post was written by Dr. Raj Persaud, Dr. Bruggen's name is retained biographically as a tribute to his contributions overall.


Anthony R. Mawson (2005). Understanding Mass Panic and Other Collective Responses to Threat and Disaster. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes: Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 95-113.

Internet Searches for Acute Anxiety During the Early Stages of the COVID-19 Pandemic. John Ayers, Eric Leas, Derek Johnson, Adam Poliak, Benjamin Althouse, Mark Dredze, Alicia Nobles. JAMA Intern Med. Published online August 24, 2020. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2020.3305

People living alone 'twice as likely to test positive for Covid-19' ONS data shows those in one-person households more likely to test positive on a swab test than those in two-person set-ups. Gabriella Swerling, SOCIAL AND RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS EDITOR 18 August 2020 • 4:18pm.…