Coronavirus is Coming: Prepare for a Pandemic Without Panic

Coronavirus concerns illustrate how accurate information can reduce anxiety.

Posted Mar 01, 2020

Image by jbarsky0 from Pixabay
Source: Image by jbarsky0 from Pixabay

We have all seen the footage: empty shelves in supermarkets—which used to be filled with abundant supplies of bottled water, canned goods, and paper products. What caused such basic essentials to fly off the shelves?  News reports of an impending pandemic. Some people jump into action earlier than others, purchasing a “deep pantry” designed to sustain themselves and their loved ones should they decide to self-isolate. Others downplay the significance of such reports, continuing to conduct business as usual until the first case is confirmed in their area (and sometimes even after that).

But images of bare shelves, long lines at grocery stores, and a shortage of sanitary masks create a different type of public health crisis: fear. Fear can cripple or motivate, depending on the quality and quantity of information received. So as media reports predict that a public health crisis is coming to a community near you, how do you effectively engage in preparation without panic?

Knowledge Is Power

Every new outbreak, especially when an illness is unfamiliar, creates fear of the unknown. Inexperience with novel pathogens means that even the professionals cannot answer all of the questions, which can create public panic. As communities brace for impact, reacting to the “not if but when” predictions of medical professionals, it is important to prepare without panic. How? The first step is to learn as much as we can, from reputable news outlets and speakers with source credibility, because when it comes to disease prevention and protection, knowledge is power.  

Information Prompts Action

How much does the average community member know during a health scare? Often, not enough. Survey research by E.J. Johnson and S. Hariharan (2017), studying community knowledge after the 2016 H1N1 epidemic, found that although people knew about the disease generally, they lacked detailed knowledge about transmission and preventative measures.[i] In light of their results, the authors emphasize the importance of disseminating health information designed to increase awareness of the type of disease at issue, as well as the availability of a vaccine. In addition to promoting healthy habits, they note that information geared to raise awareness about hygiene and safety precautions reduces fear regarding disease transmission. 

Johnson and Hariharan recognize the importance of accurate information in the wake of a public health emergency. They cite previous research noting that outbreak control is facilitated by reliable data about behavioral risk and response. But regarding the value of public preventative measures in containing the spread of disease, they note that not everyone has access to reliable news media, and there are disparities in how relevant information is disseminated.   

Preparation Without Panic

Depending on the information conveyed, media coverage of a potential public health crisis can either enlighten or frighten. From a containment perspective, the goal is to have the community take precautionary measures without unnecessary anxiety and disruption to their lives. One of the ways to ensure preparedness without paranoia is to use effective communication strategies. Sandra C. Jones et al., discuss methods of achieving this balance in "Developing Pandemic Communication Strategies: Preparation without Panic," (2010).[ii]  

They note that media coverage of a possible influenza epidemic can either inform or misinform—causing adverse and unnecessary consequences. Sometimes, as we all know, it matters where the message comes from, and how it is delivered.

Jones et al. emphasize the importance of governmental communication strategies and messaging in the wake of an anticipated pandemic. Noting the importance of an effective social marketing campaign, their research incorporated prior research findings on public consciousness and understanding of bird flu. Using focus groups, they tested the impact of evidence-based advertising messages at different points of time during preparation for a pandemic.  

Their research results suggest that in the initial stages of a pandemic, before cases have been identified within a particular country, effective communication will enhance disease awareness, and announce straightforward, important precautionary measures to reduce its spread. They note that, strategically, such communication will address public complacency, and enable the government to fulfill its duty to inform and protect the population. The challenge, they recognize, is to communicate the message to wash and take preventative measures before a local case is identified. At later stages within a pandemic, after cases have been confirmed, Jones et al. emphasize the need for the government to focus on communicating key messages geared to motivate the public to engage in stage-appropriate preventative action, without experiencing unnecessary panic.  

The Calming Influence of Credible Information

It appears that fear can be managed to some extent with accurate information. When facing a potential public health crisis, source credibility and clear instructions regarding details about a disease, along with precautionary measures, can enable the public to engage in data-driven prevention, without becoming crippled with fear and anxiety.


[i] E.J. Johnson and S. Hariharan. "Public health awareness: knowledge, attitude and behaviour of the general public on health risks during the H1N1 influenza pandemic." J Public Health 25, 333–337 (2017).

[ii] Sandra C. Jones, Louise Waters, Omnia Holland, John Bevins, and Don Iverson. "Developing Pandemic Communication Strategies: Preparation without Panic." Journal of Business Research. 63.2 (2010): 126-132.