On Coronavirus, we need the correct amount of fear

Fear is useful. Panic is not.

COVID-19, popularly known as the Coronavirus, is coming. If we’re honest, we should recognize a few facts.

  • At least 83,000 people are infected. Most are in China, but there are also outbreaks in South Korea, Iran, Japan, and Italy. There are cases in America, too.
  • More than 2,800 people have died. The fatality rate among those whose infections are detected is about 2%, but most of those who succumb are old or compromised by other medical conditions.
  • The virus spreads from person-to-person contact. It may spread even when people don’t know they have it.
  • Serious medical professionals are now talking as if it’s inevitable that it will reach the United States, and we should concentrate on mitigation, not prevention.
  • The stock markets are certainly behaving as if the virus will create a global economic slowdown; they are down more than 10% this week. Investors are not optimists or pessimists — collectively and dispassionately, they predict the future of the economy. This prediction is not encouraging.

Do the math. People travel globally. It’s possible that America will somehow be untouched — or that all cases will be contained — but there’s a pretty good likelihood that the virus will start spreading within American communities.

The question for governments and news organizations is, how quickly will it get here, and what should people do about it?

The right amount of fear — and facts

There are two extremes when it comes to communicating something that people may be afraid of.

You can pretend it is not a problem. For example, Rush Limbaugh called Coronavirus “the common cold.” This is irresponsible. There’s not a 2% fatality rate from the common cold.

You can go into a full-blown panic, and send people into survivalist mode. This is wrong, too. Take a look at China, which is pretty good picture of the worst it could get. Government there has severely restricted travel, told people to stay in their homes, and ramped up health interventions, in a way that only an authoritarian regime can. It slowed the spread of infection down and cases are slowly declining. This is pretty severe, but it’s hardly the end of civilization.

Somewhere between zero fear and maximal fear is an optimum level of fear — the type of fear that creates action. Action in this case means health practices such as hand-washing; stocking up on food, supplies, and medications; and considering what you would do if travel were restricted in your area, such as working from home. This is not all that different from how people in Minnesota would prepare for a big snowstorm. They take precautions, but don’t panic, because they know how to handle the problem.

How do you generate the right amount of fear? With a sober analysis of the situation and clear instructions. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been pretty good at this; check out its site.

Has President Trump been spreading the right amount of fear?

Trump is excellent at generating maximal fear (of, say, immigrants) or no fear at all (of, for example, a potential recession). It’s the middle ground — the sober pronouncement of risk and steps to take regarding it — that he has trouble with.

Here are some “don’t be too afraid, but don’t be completely unafraid” statements from him in his press conference about the virus:

We’re going to spend whatever’s appropriate. Hopefully, we’re not going to have to spend so much, because we really think we’ve done a great job in keeping it down to a minimum. And again, we’ve had tremendous success, tremendous success beyond what people would have thought.

We’re rapidly developing a vaccine and they can speak to you, the professionals can speak to you about that. The vaccine is coming along well, and then speaking to the doctors, we think this is something that we can develop fairly rapidly, a vaccine for the future, and coordinate with the support of our partners.

It’s a little like the regular flu that we have flu shots for and we’ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner. [Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said this at the same press conference: “Although this is the fastest we have ever gone from a sequence of a virus to a trial, it still would not be any applicable to the epidemic unless we really wait about a year to a year and a half.”]

Well, I don’t think it’s inevitable [that the virus will spread in the U.S.]. It possibly will. It could be at a very small level or it could be at a larger level. Whatever happens, we’re totally prepared. . . . I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think that we’re doing a really good job in terms of maintaining borders in terms of letting people in, in terms of checking people, and also, that’s one of the reasons I’m here today, getting the word out so people can… They’ll know. They’re going to know. No, I don’t think it’s inevitable. I think that there’s a chance that it could get worse. There’s a chance it could get fairly substantially worse, but nothing’s inevitable.

It’s going to be very well under control. Now. It may get bigger, it may get a little bigger. It may not get bigger at all. We’ll see what happens, but regardless of what happens, we’re totally prepared, please.

I think every aspect of our society should be prepared. I don’t think it’s going to come to that, especially with the fact that we’re going down, not up. We’re going very substantially down not up, but yeah,

Not the best communication

When the weather forecaster says there is a 20% chance of a big snowstorm, you know to prepare, but that the occurrence is uncertain. Furthermore, you admire the forecaster for seeing what is possible, even if they can’t accurately predict the future. Better to know what could happen then not to know.

Trump’s statements are more self-serving (“We did the right thing”) and hopeful (“It might not get here.”) Since there is a significant chance of infection spreading, it is better to prepare, not to hope. Optimism doesn’t prevent the spread of disease. A leader in this situation must lead in a nonpartisan way for the good of the country.

I look forward to more authoritative communication regarding the virus from the CDC and other trustworthy scientific agencies. If the Trump administration allows these organizations to do their job — and if it takes appropriate action in the face of possible infection, such as prohibiting large conferences and rallies — then we’ll weather this.

If it blocks scientists from sharing accurate information and fails to take appropriate action — well, then we’re all screwed. Because even if you can’t stop Coronavirus, if you fail to lead by generating the right amount of fear, you can make things much worse.

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  1. The WHO actually says that containment is both working in places where the virus has already spread. And, if health officials prepare properly containment has a chance working in countries where the virus is not widespread or been seen yet. They say that moving to mitigation only is a mistake. This comes from their briefing this morning. I love your work and guidance on comms issues. But, this a case where your reference to mitigation only goes against what the health experts have said.

      1. Don’t misunderstand my point, WHO leadership state that containment strategy and mitigation strategy must be blended so that people are prepared. To infer mitigation only, as the 4th bullet point does, is according to the health experts.

        If I didn’t respect you POV and your intent with this post, I’d call bullshit for that bullet point alone because it undermines what the experts are saying. But, I do respect your POV and intent. It’s a not but an important one in this case.

        1. I think it’s way past time the human race wake up and strengthen the bodies emune system. because we got too many
          panicking when a new virus is attacking and killing people.
          we focus more on keeping people in containment than inventing a cure for this disease Corona virus.

          1. “EMUNE” !! Lol we should definitely take advice from that guy…..

  2. CDC guidance in a nutshell with my fine tuning:

    All employers shall implement strategies to protect their workforce while ensuring continuity of operations. All sick employees shall stay home, all employees shall practice respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene, and the employer shall routinely clean all commonly touched surfaces.

    1. Agree … good piece. Apologies for wording errors in my previous comment. I was typing on the fly with fat fingers. 🤦🏻‍♂️

  3. You said “Take a look at China, which is pretty good picture of the worst it could get.”

    Respectfully disagree.

    Looking at what has happened in China (conveniently ignoring the two weeks when they were suppressing the truth):
    – very pro-active government action to reduce spread
    – suspension of utility bills for affected citizens
    – majority of treatment is free
    – significantly reducing case count after only 80,000 infections
    – some significant temporary reductions in citizens rights in order to save lives
    – multiple Chinese regions (think states) sending medical volunteers, medicines, protective equipment, food, beds etc to affected region

    Worst case would be:
    – government denies severity/risks
    – citizens forced to ignore voluntary quarantine measures because of need to pay bills
    – fear of huge medical bills prevents people from seeking diagnosis and treatment until too late
    – 100’s of millions infected, overwhelmed health services throughout entire country and a million or two deaths
    – states fighting over medics, medicines, protective equipment etc

    I think your definition of worst case needs some critical thinking.

  4. ” but most of those who succumb are old or compromised by other medical conditions.” geez, josh, you throw this in as if it were no big deal. like, it’s not too serious; will just pick off the old and the weak-good riddance!?!?!

    i am a fit, healthy 68 year old. but i have asthma and can get very sick from the flu or even a cold. most of my friends are older, too, and we have plenty of life left in us still, although many of us have medical conditions, from mild to serious, that would be affected by coronavirus. oh, but don’t worry too much about it? we are the 2% who are most likely to croak; have some compassion! (not to mention that we have kids, grandkids and younger friends who will miss us!)

    1. The immunocompromised and folks with chronic illness, like Asthma, are at high risk of mortality as with any virus.
      The point is that fear should be measured by the weight of the problem. We have seen strains of this virus before. That means we are aware of its make up. We have some idea of what we are dealing with.
      Real fear should be saved for the virus that shows up and kills off healthy people. When healthy people are dying from contracting a virus…that’s when we should be in panic mode.
      BTW. If you have Asthma you are not healthy.

      1. but the risk is higher with coronavirus, apparently considerably higher for older people. the “weight of the problem” weighs heavily on people like me.

        BTW, are you a doctor? my doctor says i AM healthy. i am very fit, i have the resting heart rate of an athlete(because i am an athlete) excellent blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, and rarely get sick. but when i do, i can get into trouble with my asthma, which normally doesn’t interfere with my life. so even by your standards-which seems to be, don’t worry too much, this disease will only weed out the weak and the elderly-don’t think i deserve to croak.

        i don’t think we should EVER be in “panic mode” because that doesn’t help. but it also doesn’t help to have an ageist cavalier attitude about the people who are most likely to die from this virus.

    2. Nothing is ok when it comes to suffer and die only our ignorance show .one life is as important as next .communications with all mankind .will improve during this and all life will get better. It’s not like Hg wells book the earth stood still. We need to move fast now there is no tomorrow for some cant buy time .but we can give lives some time .

  5. The common flu stains kill multiple thousands of people every year, and it has never received this kind of attention. Keep in mind that we never stayed in our homes, avoided social gathering places, or been told to close businesses to prevent the spread of the virus. When the united states had 20 percent of the total population sick with the flu, the oil prices and stock markets did not bottom out, trade did not cease globally. Let’s look at it as a test, a test that is implemented to see how much control a government can obtain over its citizen by use of fear, and controlling the amount of food available on store shelves. By shutting down businesses, and putting a financial burden on families. By controlling people with these things, fear, money, and food, the people will do exactly what they are told to do. They will stop exercising, stop gathering with friends and family, will remain in their homes and listening to the news media for their life guiding instructions. I am not saying the corona virus is not a real threat to all of us, I am saying there is more to this whole situation. I am not the type to fall into consipirity theories, but it seems very odd that this virus is getting so much attention, and unesassary fear, being spread by the media. Other than the weather forecast, the entire news time slot is taken up by coronavirus coverage and the all important cautions to take. I pray for all who are sick , that they may have a complete recovery and go on to live a normal and healthy life. My other prayer is that the public have faith in God not man, and do not let fear control their decision making abilities.

  6. I’m 71 years old and this is by by far the most ridiculous over-response over essentially nothing I’ve seen yet. You’d think it was Anthrax or the Black Plague. Now THERE’S something to get all worked up about – NOT This!

    The “Correct amount of fear” in this case is Zero! WTF good does being afraid do?

    We’re a nation of hysterical, cowering sheep these days. Seems like it really got bad after 9-11.

    If/when anything that actually IS serious happens, we’ll self-destruct within 24 hours!