Store shelves empty of hand sanitizer and survival staples, jacked-up prices by online sellers, and a volatile stock market offer a snapshot of America gripped by a virus that mental health experts warn is potentially more dangerous than the coronavirus itself: the pandemic of fear.
Unless you haven’t been paying attention to everything coronavirus-related — which some consumer behavior and mental health experts say may be the best thing for you — you’ve wondered how much you should prepare for the new virus that has made its way from China and other countries to the United States. A warning just a few weeks ago that the virus would spread into U.S. communities is now a reality.
The uncertainty surrounding the new coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, is spurring a consumer rush on items including hand sanitizers, disinfectants and enough nonperishable food to last two weeks — the latter being the recommendation of public health officials if a self-quarantine becomes necessary.
The advice isn’t a doomsday harbinger but, rather, a caution against risking infecting others by going to pick up those items when you’re sick, says Dr. Ronald Blanton, whose specialties at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine include global health.
Public health officials say the risk to most people of contracting COVID-19 remains low, although 14 people in the United States have now died. All but one of those deaths occurred in Washington state, where confirmed cases have been growing exponentially in recent days.
“The panic: We’re all going to die and this is unprecedented,” Blanton says, noting fear often looks for someone to blame — for example, an Asian woman simply because the epicenter for COVID-19 is China. “In fact, we are facing new viruses all the time, and some of these are created in the U.S.”
Geography Dictates What’s Reasonable
So, what is a reasonable response?
A lot depends on geography, Blanton says.
In the Seattle area, where 13 people have died of COVID-19, Blanton says the response of public health officials is reasonable given the scope of the problem there. Those officials encouraged people to work from home if they can, and for event sponsors to postpone large gatherings.
“It’s truly worrisome in Washington [state],” he says. “There are clearly so many other cases out there where infections are unrecognized, so we’ll see continued contamination. It’s a domestic problem in Washington.”
Americans living in other U.S. states with confirmed coronavirus cases — the nation had 233 as of Friday morning, according to a real-time tracker maintained by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering — are adjusting to what some experts suggest is a new normal, at least until the virus is either contained or peters out with warming weather, as happens with illnesses such as influenza that are in the same family.
Across the country, disruptions of normal life are everywhere.
Catholic parishes are rethinking certain rituals and the distribution of sacraments during the season of Lent. Local parks officials are appealing to parents to keep sick kids at home. Local libraries are canceling play groups because kids share and put toys in their mouths. Businesses, including Patch, have implemented contingency plans for their employees to work from home. And organizers of big and small events and conferences are assessing whether to postpone or cancel. A Virginia health care facility for the elderly, a population appearing to be most at risk for contracting COVID-19, is “on steroids” in its response.
Children are less vulnerable, but classrooms and schools across the country are getting a thorough scrub-down. The coronavirus has closed some schools. University students studying abroad are scrambling to get home, where many will go under a 14-day self-quarantine as school officials figure out alternative ways for those students to get credit for the course.
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All of this is occurring as a coronavirus-related travel dip and other economic shifts continue to spark wild swings on Wall Street, and as Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill skirmish about whether America is properly equipped to defend itself against coronavirus and if the Trump administration is downplaying the threat to calm economic fears.
Those factors all collide in the psyche of America, suddenly met with the reality that a virus many thought as recently as a month ago would stay far away from our shores has, in fact, reached communities on both coasts and small pockets in between.
In states where there aren’t any confirmed cases or a high number of patients being monitored, the most reasonable response may be to follow the same good hygiene practices that help control the spread of colds and influenza and to go about their lives, Blanton says.
CBS News reported hand sanitizer sales skyrocketed 1,400 percent from December to January. And yet, while sanitizer is “almost as good,” nothing is as effective in defending against coronavirus as good old-fashioned hand-washing, he says, lamenting, “We repeat this ad nauseum.”
Besides frequent and vigorous hand-washing for 20 seconds with hot, soapy water — be sure scrub deep between fingers, around cuticles and under fingernails — other proven strategies to prevent the spread of any respiratory virus include sneezing into your elbow, keeping your hands away from your face, and washing and wiping down surfaces with disinfectants.
Media psychology professor Christopher Morin says with certainty that an unrelenting stream of information about the new coronavirus — he calls it a bombardment, like an incoming attack — is fueling America’s panic attack.
“We’re receiving an abnormal number of messages that convey the same threat,” says Morin, who teaches at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, California, and has written multiple books on media-driven consumer behavior. “That’s interpreted by our brain as a life-or-death challenge unless we start storing supplies — as if we had to hide in a bunker for many, many months.”
Morin says we’re all wired for fight-or-flight responses in our primal brain, unchanged by millions of years of evolution. In normal circumstances, he says, the frontal cortex — the part of the brain responsible for, among other life skills, problem-solving, reasoning, judgment and impulse control — holds the primal brain at bay. But in tumultuous times,”the 500-million-year-old part of the brain operates under the assumption the world is ending.”
“The threat is not a lion, dinosaur or alligator,” Morin says. “It is a virus, and the more it happens, rationality becomes extinct and we shut off that part of our brain where emotions and reason are managed.”
Not everyone responds in the same way, of course. Many people, Blanton suggests, go about their lives with perhaps a heightened awareness that they need to keep washing their hands but without fear.
But for people already predisposed to anxiety or panic attacks, just watching the news can be unhealthy, Morin says.
To them, he advises: “Protect yourself. Don’t become compulsive about seeking information that repeats the exact information and recycles footage. It makes the threat seem present and immediate, and the brain goes into overdrive.”
And, he says, literally take a breath by practicing a relaxation technique such as meditation, or take a walk in the fresh air.
Social Media Hits The Panic Button
Morin says most journalism-driven media organizations offer responsible, need-to-know coronavirus coverage with fair, objective reporting that stays away from click-bait headlines that can instill panic. Social media and news consolidators operate in an environment that can favor sensational, jarring headlines and shareable memes that often not only oversimplify issues but pass along misleading information.
“It’s part of the polarization of social media that gives a voice to these stories of panic, and they’re the cause of the greatest concern,” Morin says. “They’re hitting the panic button and pushing it into the primal brains of populations that are the most fragile — young people who haven’t yet developed the ability to rationalize, the elderly who may be fragile mentally.
He’s adamant, though, that “everyone is affected at a deeper psychological level” because everyone has a primal brain.
“I truly believe,” he says, “nobody can be protected right now for the direct effect of these messages on the primal brain.”
But This Isn’t Hoarding
Some of the misinformation swirling around about coronavirus can bring out the worst in society — and, however unintentionally, people struggling with conditions that are already prone to wild assumptions and misunderstanding can be harmed, says Dr. Simon Rego, the chief psychiatrist at Montefiore Health System and an associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Rego, whose areas of specialty include hoarding and compulsive disorders, says stockpilers and doomsday preppers are often incorrectly called “hoarders” in the news media and by others but that the colloquialism vastly misrepresents the clinical issue behind the disorder.
In fact, people with hoarding disorders are no more inclined to stockpile basic survival items in preparation for an emergency than anyone else, Rego says. Further, he says, these persons don’t suddenly start hoarding in response to a perceived threat like the new coronavirus.
“It often starts at a young age, is often quite private, happens over time and is only discovered when there’s so much clutter around it’s causing some sort of interference with the ability to use the space as it was intended or get into certain rooms … or it’s putting them at risk for falls, or for fires, or for health hazards … or at risk at distressing themselves, families, neighbors and landlords.”
Rego says some people go beyond normal preparedness to a “middle path” that’s not quite a diagnosable, clinical disorder, yet doesn’t rise to the level of doomsday preppers who associate the coronavirus with end times and prepare for a long siege.
“It depends on the degree to which a person tolerates uncertainty,” he says. “If a person has a sensitivity to getting anxious, the less they tolerate it and the more they prepare.”