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COVID-19 and Fighting the Pandemic of Fear

The other day at work, there were a few employees that were unnecessarily spreading panic on a message board by comparing the novel coronavirus COVID-19 to the infections mentioned in Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel — one commenter wrote that “every once in a while in history an infection comes along like this.”

Comparing this to the infections that wiped out Native American populations is absurd and wildly inaccurate. It is estimated that measles, smallpox and flu — pathogens that Native Americans had never been exposed to and therefore were particularly susceptible to — killed 90% of the Native American population in the Americas in the years after colonists arrived. COVID-19, on the other hand (a relative to the four other endemic coronaviruses we have been exposed to), has a case fatality rate of 3.4% according to the latest estimate –  minuscule by comparison.

Yes, this is serious. Yes, it will affect our lives, requiring life-changing disruptions such as quarantines and social distancing, but it is important to keep a cool head. Comparing this to pandemics that nearly wiped out entire civilizations is unnecessarily alarmist and only contributes to the pandemic of fear that threatens to undermine our fight against the actual, real pandemic we are facing.

We need to be prepared, but we also need to stay calm. Fear and panic put us into survival mode, switching off our frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved with planning, reason and complex actions) and revving up our limbic system (the fight or flight system governed by fear and emotion). If we are going to “flatten the curve” on this infection’s lethality, we are going to have to work hard to keep our frontal cortices online.

Communities who give into fear and panic end up with able-bodied citizens storming Costco every morning at 9:01 a.m. to buy up all the toilet paper and water and hand sanitizer and masks, leaving the elderly, feeble and sick without the ability to purchase such items, and increasing the likelihood that those who are most susceptible to COVID-19 will have to leave their houses for such items when the infection actually hits.

That is honestly what frightens me the most  —  healthy, able-bodied people (who are less susceptible to this disease) will be prepared for the zombie apocalypse, while the feeble and ill among us (who are more susceptible to this disease) will be outspent and outrun, and will therefore experience infection at a higher than anticipated rate, leading to higher than expected casualties.

Stay alert, stay informed, be prepared, but most importantly: stay calm.

Justin Jones, MD Justin Jones, MD (5 Posts)

Attending Physician Guest Author and Contributing Writer Emeritus

Intermountain Healthcare

Justin Jones is an outpatient primary care physician in Utah. He completed his residency in 2018 in Colorado and wrote for in-House during residency. He blogs at Residency Hacker.