Rumours and fears about the Covid-19 coronavirus are spreading quickly online. Individual reports on twitter about an individual’s inability to get tested for the virus are countered by reports that the test in the U.S. isn’t effective anyway. Many others offer common sense tips for how to prevent not just transmission of this illness, but all contagions. The CDC advises caution, meanwhile outlets in affected areas posit that infection rates are higher than they appear. Individuals find themselves unsure how to proceed in terms of travel, stocking up on provisions, or attending group gatherings.
We have no lack of science fiction tales showing us the horrifying catastrophic effects of unchecked pandemics, from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death” about plague spreading at a party, to films like Will Smith’s I Am Legend where an unknown pathogen turns people into monsters, to the famous Star Trek episode “The Naked Time” where the crew races against time for a cure. As much a part of our discourse about the coronavirus is our shared narrative history. It is this collective chronicle that both puts us on edge, and incites is to chill out.
What we’ve seen in Wuhan is that as China has locked down areas with the highest number of cases, their daily reports of new cases have begun to decline. However, when I mentioned this to a friend, he said there was no way to tell if we were getting accurate information from China. A statement from the World Health Organization as to the accuracy of China’s reporting wasn’t enough to convince him.
A vaccine is a year away, those most at risk are over 30. If we have a serious outbreak, the U.S. is very short on ventilators. Many people and organizations are canceling trips and events across the board. The Canadian military has halted all non essential travel for all personnel, for example. Turkey closed its borders. Some are saying we have to brace for a pandemic, others are saying hey let’s not freak out because freaking out makes things worse.
China has had the highest number of deaths so far, with most of those being older men who smoke. When you read that fact, your first thought is probably that you’re not an older man who smokes, so no reason to freak out, and it’s a fair thought. We want to mentally exclude ourselves personally, locally, and nationally from concern.
In the UK, the Telegraph reported that there’s reason to believe the coronavirus is spreading within London hospitals. The Independent details plans for a potential Parliamentary shut down in the event of widespread contagion. On one hand, we think to our level headed selves, that sounds pretty alarmist. On the other hand, if it’s true, well then that’s rather alarming.
There have been extreme measures implemented, such as in the case of Turkey which has locked down its borders to some countries rather than risk a viral entry. Measures in China seem rather draconian, and have had unavoidable economic ramifications. School closures are happening in many communities, while in Italy fans are barred from sporting events. Constant updates increase uncertainty and anxiety, but this is the news, and it must be reported.
We creatures of habit cling strongly to the repetition of our lives. The prospect of massive disruptions to so much of daily life, as we’ve seen in Wuhan, is unfathomable. Despite our shared stories of what that could look like, we cannot actually visualize it in our own lives, or on the landscape of our national economies.
We try to strike a balance. We try not to go into a tailspin of anxiety. We try to stay informed. We are urged to trust our leadership, just as that leadership is pilloried in the press. Yet there are facts. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control have put much information on their website, letting us know what precautions we should be taking, and also plenty of reasons why we should not lose our collective grip.
However, the growing anxiety that comes with the ever present unknowns about how we will be affected personally, locally, nationally, and globally by what has been called by many governments a pandemic, is hard to stomach. There have been reports of empty store shelves, people stocking up on toilet paper, condoms, or other essentials. Still other locales seem virtually unaffected by concern.
The balance many journalists and editors are trying to strike is one of generally not flying off the handle, while still reporting facts, and trying to get a sense of how to give useful, essential information to readers. No one wants to incite public panic, but no one wants to under report, either. We are given “reality checks,” and the advice to trust the experts.
When my son was five months old, he needed cranial surgery for a condition called craniosynostosis. His dad and I knew from only a few days after he was born that he would need treatment for his condition, so we set about to find the right doctors to handle it. Living in New York City, with access to some of the best care worldwide, we thought we would find the best doctor and basically do what they recommended.
When we found that there were two entirely different treatments for the condition, we were flummoxed. Doctors who had been in the field for decades disagreed with each other on the best course of action for my child. After a few consultations, we realized that the decision on how best to treat our son’s cranial condition would lie with us. I’m not a doctor, I’m not an expert, I’m just a person who wanted to do the right thing, and I wanted an expert to tell me what that was. As it turned out, I could not place the responsibility for the medical care of my son with anyone else. I had to take on that responsibility myself.
After weighing all the variables and risks and eating way too much chocolate peanut butter ice cream, we made a decision. A few weeks before my son turned six months old he had a massive, eight hour surgery to correct a skull deformity. I was sure it was the right decision then, and I’m sure now. But the choice was his parents’ alone. If it had turned out badly, I would have had no one to blame for having made the wrong call.
There is a lot of information flying around about the coronavirus. There are facts and figures, there are predictive models and leaders that urge caution as well as those who declare states of emergency. But the responsibility for how you behave, for what action or inaction to take, lies with you.
Don’t freak out, because panic doesn’t actually help anything, but figure out what you need to do to allay anxiety without giving over the responsibility for yourself, your family, and your life to someone else’s decision making process. Assemble the information, make an informed decision, think clearly, and trust yourself to do the right thing.