Steve Sack | Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Steve Sack | Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Commentry: Fear, not virus, that’s roiling markets and upending daily life

By Barry Glassner

Los Angeles Times

Can we please stop blaming a microbe for things it can’t do?

Coronavirus doesn’t make the stock market plunge or schools shut down or empty entire aisles of supermarkets.

Despite headlines proclaiming “Coronavirus Roils Markets” and “Coronavirus Tightens Grip on Daily Life Around the Globe,” the virus is incapable of such feats. Those are caused by fears —some rational, some irrational.

On Wednesday, President Trump announced new restrictions on travel and measures aimed at containing the virus that we hope are based on the best science. Some of the things Americans have done in recent days are not.

Frightened people sometimes make good decisions. They lay in flashlight batteries prior to a hurricane, say. But they also do things that put themselves and others at greater risk. When investors sell on fear, they disregard the proven benefits of investing for the long term —and increase the odds that workers will be laid off. When people clear shelves of masks and hand sanitizers, they make it more likely that they and others will find themselves in medical facilities that need more of these supplies than they can get. And when they lay in a six-month supply of toilet paper? They leave other people scrambling to find it.

What’s particularly ironic is that frightened people are more susceptible to viral and other diseases. Numerous studies suggest that fear and stress weaken our immune systems, leaving us more vulnerable to infection.

Chronic fear also contributes to two of the three leading causes of death in the U.S. —heart disease and accidents —and the third, cancer, is only a partial exception. There’s little evidence that stress directly triggers cancer, but it can lead us to do things like smoke and drink more, which increases our cancer risk.

Fear-ridden people not only make dicey decisions themselves; they pressure public officials to do so. In recent days, some school administrators have made the decision to close schools even without known cases of the virus. There’s much we don’t know about the course this outbreak will take, and it may be that some school closures make sense, but measured responses aren’t the way of a panicked populace.

It’s true that children who aren’t attending school won’t acquire or spread the virus at school. But most of them won’t be removing themselves from close contact with others —on public transportation, in movie theaters and shopping centers. And there are costs borne by children who rely on school lunches, special education teachers or school nurses. In many communities the caretakers who will be watching out for these children will be from the group most vulnerable to serious disease and death from viral infections: elderly relatives.

Hospital administrators are another group who find themselves in binds. Do they delay hospitalization or surgery for other patients in order to serve more COVID-19 patients? “What worries me,” Dr. Paul Offit, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, told an interviewer, “is the panic and fear associated with this is going to cause health care systems like ours to be overwhelmed where those people who really do need our care are going to be pushed aside.”

If, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said recently, “worse than the virus right now is the fear pandemic,” why are we so susceptible?

Blame evolution. COVID-19 is new and unknown, and we’re hard-wired to fight or flee when confronted with novel threats.

Evolution provided this response to help us survive. When we’re on a hike and spot a rattle snake, the fight or flight response serves us well. But like other of our natural impulses, it doesn’t benefit us in every situation.

As adults, we’re supposed to know better than to give in to our urges in counterproductive ways. Buying up whatever makes you feel safer is like trying to cure alcoholism by having another drink. You might stave off your craving, but you’re making matters worse.

Some social scientists contend that fear itself is addictive. It certainly feeds on itself. We share our fears about the virus with friends, who respond with their own concerns. Or we go online to check out something we heard on the radio and come across a dozen other scary stories.

What’s the proper response then? Just say no to people dealing fear without real knowledge. Refuse as well people who politicize the disease. Those on the right who blame COVID-19 on deep-state actors and their counterparts on the left who call it “Trumpvirus” add needless anxieties and make the nation’s fear-fogged conversation even more dimwitted. We should be debating how to provide health care and sick leave for those who need it, not conspiracy theories.

Politicizing the outbreak also serves to undermine the authority of responsible officials. There are definitely things that make sense in dealing with a virus that’s spreading more rapidly than our knowledge of it. We need to heed directives to wash our hands and stay home if we’re not feeling well. Many workplaces will choose to encourage telecommuting where it makes sense —in part to work out the kinks should it actually become necessary. And we should follow the advice of our health care providers. We don’t need to be wondering if they are agents of the deep state.

The world’s top public health official put it well. “Fear and panic are dangerous,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization. “It’s fine to be concerned and worried, but let’s calm down and do the right things.”

Barry Glassner is the author of “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things.”