Why Are We So Scared of the Coronavirus?
The pandemic is truly terrifying. But other forces are intensifying our fears.
Feelings are, by definition, hard to put into words. So to accurately describe the anxiety now gripping the world is extremely challenging.
Still, to say that people are merely scared of the novel coronavirus storming around the globe doesn’t do it justice. “Scared” isn’t strong or nuanced enough to capture the kind of fear so many people seem to be feeling.
The signs of alarm are everywhere, both big and small. You can see them in the faces of subway riders when someone coughs or in the eyes of an Uber driver peering above her face mask in the rearview mirror. And you can see them in the massive, disproportionate, and self-destructive responses some societies have taken—more on those below.
Let me make something clear from the start: I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of good, rational reasons to be concerned. As of this writing, 116,145 people have contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and 4,090 of them have died. Worse, in the West, infections are still accelerating, which means it has yet to experience the pandemic’s full force.
[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]
The governments of China, the United States, Iran, and Italy, meanwhile, have all badly fumbled their responses, some of them lying about the outbreak and punishing the whistleblowers. At times like these, people naturally want and expect a reasonable, fact-based, and fully staffed government to protect them. But Americans lack one of those right now. Not only is the Trump administration operating on a skeleton crew—can you even name the heads of the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services or the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency?—but in 2018, the president fired the country’s entire pandemic response team.
So things are genuinely scary, and I don’t want to imply that Tesla’s Elon Musk was right when he tweeted that the “coronavirus panic is dumb” (although panicking is certainly unhelpful) or that there was anything to Donald Trump’s claim that the virus is a Democratic hoax. Talk about dumb.
There are, indeed, very good reasons to be afraid. Even if the odds of each of us, especially the under 60s, dying from the coronavirus are very low, everyone has friends and family in more vulnerable groups. Worrying about protecting others is one of our best and most natural instincts, and using that fear to take precautions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others, such as social distancing, is very important.
Nevertheless, the global reaction to the coronavirus suggests there are other reasons for our fear.
Start with the fact that we as a species have survived far worse. I’m not talking about ancient calamities like the Black Plague, which wiped out some 200 million people in the Middle Ages. I’m talking about HIV/AIDS (which, for many years, had a 100 percent fatality rate, 95-99 percentage points higher than the coronavirus), SARS, and H1N1. I’m talking about the seasonal flu, which killed 80,000 people in 2017-2018 in the United States alone—75,910 more than have died so far from COVID-19 worldwide. Or consider traffic accidents, which kill about 1.25 million people every year yet seem to have little impact on people’s behavior, either good and bad.
Yet, despite the likelihood that the majority of people will never get the virus and that the vast majority who do (assuming it doesn’t mutate) will survive, people and governments are reacting in some extreme ways.
Some of these reactions are relatively benign, like wearing damp and porous surgical masks (though that’s contributing to a global mask shortage) or panic-buying peanut butter, toilet paper, and other end-of-days accessories—a behavior for which the Germans, of course, already have a name (Hamsterkauf).
Meanwhile, demagogues and conspiracy theorists have been so busy making hay of the virus that Wikipedia has created a page to keep track of their febrile fantasies. Among the highlights: that China created the bug to quell the Hong Kong protests or subjugate the Uighurs; that the coronavirus is part of a population control scheme backed by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates; and that the virus was designed in a Canadian bioweapons lab (which must be the first time Canada has been blamed for anything nefarious since the great maple syrup heist of 2012).
Silly as such examples are, some of the irrational responses to the virus have begun impacting our lives and the economy in noxious ways, despite the fact that they may do nothing to fight the pandemic. As the Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria pointed out last week, populists are exploiting the disease to intensify their attacks on immigration. More than 10 percent of the world’s population is now on mandatory lockdown. Italy has canceled church services, Ireland has canceled St. Patrick’s Day parades, and Tokyo has canceled an annual cherry blossom festival. Israel, one of the world’s most border-conscious countries, just went full World War Z, imposing a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering the country—from anywhere. Such measures will smother all sorts of critical economic activities in the short term and may wreak havoc with global supply chains in the long run.
What, then, explains and connects all these excesses, so many of which defy medical science and common sense? There are, I think, three basic answers.
The first is that the coronavirus is new, invisible, sometimes deadly—and still largely unknown. Not only are we far from a vaccine, but we still don’t really know what we’re up against: how lethal the disease actually is or how many people are actually infected. (This last problem is due, in part, to a baffling shortage of testing kits in the United States and around the world.) As Michael Barkun, a professor emeritus of political science at Syracuse University, put it to me in an email, the unseen, mysterious nature of this enemy makes it especially scary—and especially ripe for all kinds of imagined explanations and antidotes.
Second, the coronavirus has proved particularly frightening because of the way it both embodies and exploits issues that were already provoking intense anxiety around the world: namely globalization, mass migration, and interdependence. These are precisely the issues that Trump and other populists have been harping on for years and that so many voters, who feel buffeted by forces they don’t understand and can’t control, have responded to. By coming out of China—Trump’s favorite target—and traveling the same globalized pathways as goods, services, and people, the coronavirus represents everything the populists already dread and detest. That fact has made the virus “both a metaphor and a validation of all the fears of the outside world and the ‘other’” that Trump and his followers obsess over, Barkun explained.
The third reason the coronavirus has struck such a powerful chord stems from a deep sense of guilt that many of us feel over the way humanity’s relentless abuse of the natural world—from centuries of burning carbon to years of overusing powerful antibiotics—has begun to damage the biosphere. For decades, it was possible to think about that damage as an abstract problem. But in the past few years, as wildfires have scorched the planet and the weather has become hotter, wetter, and wilder, the problem has become impossible to ignore. Many of us now sense that we’ve knocked once predictable natural systems out of whack and that we’ll soon pay a terrible price. The coronavirus feeds into this expectation by presenting it like an inevitable comeuppance. As Barkun put it, “We live in a time of apocalyptic motifs.” Or as a friend said to me, “Even if it’s not this one that ultimately gets us, it hardly matters. The next will or the one after that.”
Now, while all this fear can cause people to act in increasingly erratic ways, it’s not all bad news. A few years ago, I wrote a book arguing that governments only ever tackle big, life-threatening challenges when their backs are against the wall. Existential crises are good at clarifying the mind. They often convince politicians to make deep, painful, but necessary reforms because they force them to accept that there’s no other choice; should they fail, not only will it doom their careers, but it will doom their countries as well.
The coronavirus may be that kind of crisis; if it’s not, the next one or the one after that will be. But so far, there’s no sign that our leaders are drawing the right conclusions by acknowledging the true scale of the problem and working together in an open, effective, and coordinated way. And that’s the scariest part of all.
Update, March 13, 2020: This article was updated to more accurately reflect the probability of virus contagion.