An expert's point of view on a current event.

Coronavirus Fears Are a National Security Crisis

Here’s how to arm yourself for the health catastrophe caused by public anxiety.

Protective N-95 face masks
Protective N-95 face masks lie on a table at an office in Washington on Feb. 26. EVA HAMBACH/AFP via Getty Images

The arrival in the United States of the new human coronavirus (which causes the coronavirus disease, COVID-19) certainly qualifies as a national security crisis. It is also a cause of widespread anxiety.

The arrival in the United States of the new human coronavirus (which causes the coronavirus disease, COVID-19) certainly qualifies as a national security crisis. It is also a cause of widespread anxiety.

The latter deserves to be a concern for policymakers, and the public, too. As someone who has made a career of studying foreign policy from the perspective of threat perception, I have spent years observing and analyzing how people and organizations respond to crises—and how those responses, especially ones marked by fear, can themselves contribute to catastrophe.

Here are some pointers for maintaining a reasonable perspective amid the current public panic. (This isn’t intended as public health advice—but national security expertise can nevertheless help keep you healthy.)

First, you should recognize that media is overwhelmingly incentivized to produce negative and alarmist headlines, without the accompanying historical context and analytical expertise needed for the average person to evaluate the severity of those headlines. This is especially problematic for the new coronavirus, because Americans have significantly poor health literacy relative to their knowledge of other public policy issues. And while some news publications may be responsible and balanced, most are operated on business models that privilege sensationalism and deem positive news and positive trends to be not newsworthy. Meanwhile, as several studies of the Ebola crisis demonstrated, it’s best to stay off of social media unless you want to be misinformed or terrified.

The second point follows from the first: You should seek out clarifying information from the most reputable and unbiased sources available, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization. If those are too wonky for your taste, try the more readable reporting at Science, the Journal of the American Medical Association, and Scientific American. Whatever credible source you ultimately decide to read to learn about the coronavirus, recognize that it will represent an outdated snapshot of reality. This is due to the inevitable time lag between testing, analysis, and reporting, as well as the fact that health communication specialists are overly cautious of declarative statements about improvements in tackling disease outbreaks.

Third, accept that you have been primed to make biased judgments based upon initial impressions. A 2010 study, “Sneezing in Times of a Flu Pandemic: Public Sneezing Increases Perception of Unrelated Risks and Shifts Preferences for Federal Spending,” found that when people see someone sneezing before answering questions involving risk perception they are more likely to believe they will die from contracting the flu, heart disease, or a criminal act. Thus, if you are surrounded by a majority of people wearing face masks or apparent examples of preparing for an epidemic, you will perceive the coronavirus threat as being worse. Appreciate also that if you are wearing a surgical mask or exhibiting the actions of a panicked prepper, you are raising the anxiety levels of nearly everyone you encounter.

Fourth, you should understand that your enthusiasm to change behaviors in productive ways (such as adopting a better personal hygiene regimen, including hand-washing) will be highly influenced by “immediacy”—that is, the perceived distance in space and time of victims. Even learning basic biographical information about victims spurs empathy and has a vast impact on public behavior, including the donation of money to charity. A 2018 study of major media Ebola reporting in 2014 found that human interest stories of U.S. citizen fatalities were especially popular in the United States, as opposed to stories focused on victims in West Africa or the economic impact of the outbreak. The takeaway is that, given the apparent ability of the coronavirus to spread even in the absence of immediate human contact—and the world’s general geographical interconnectedness—you shouldn’t wait until confirmed cases are at your doorstep to undertake the common-sense mitigation steps recommended by the CDC.

Fifth, there will be governmental and societal mitigation efforts to reduce the spread of virus cases, some of which will succeed, others of which will fail outright, and all of which will yield unintended consequences. For example, after the 9/11 attacks, Americans drove more frequently than normal flying, which resulted in an estimated 1,600 additional traffic fatalities. And after the Fukushima meltdown and nuclear energy production ceased, Japanese citizens reduced their energy use due to the increased cost of imported fossil fuels—this, in turn, resulted in an additional 1,280 cold-weather deaths. In response to the coronavirus, federal, state, and local governments; businesses and trade associations; and various community groups in the United States are already attempting a range of public-health interventions (including information campaigns, telecommuting, social distancing). We should expect these interventions to have a range of outcomes—but the goal should always be to do the minimum disruptive harm, collect reliable data, learn quickly, and adjust.

Finally, the present always feels more chaotic, unpredictable, and unstable than the past, because, with hindsight, we know how things ultimately turned out. As nobody has information about the future, during periods of heightened anxiety we tend to project forward with near-worst-case scenarios in our heads. Thus, the atmosphere may feel especially chaotic right now given the escalating number of COVID-19 cases around the world and unusual volatility in financial markets. Undoubtedly, some pessimistic forecasters will be accurate in their predictions. Nonetheless, in such uncertainty, an intentional and conscious exposition of both individual and societal biases is among the stronger defenses against coronavirus fears.

The broad public application of these six insights—or the failure to do so—will likely help decide how the coronavirus epidemic unfolds. But even as purely personal advice, they can enhance your critical thinking during this outbreak—and during the next crisis to create headlines and public anxiety.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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