Saturday, March 07, 2020

The United States of Panic

I went to the gym a few days ago. As I was wrapping up my cardio, I glanced at the array of TV screens. One of them was tuned to CNN, which was blasting panic about COVID-19 (also known as “the novel coronavirus”). It was exclaiming how it is “now on all continents except Antarctica” and amplifying the politicization and polarization of the situation. The framing was deliberate and clear: Hey everybody! Worry!

No Relief (from COVID-19 panic)
At the grocery store on the way home, the shelves were stripped bare of toilet paper, water, pain relievers, and many other products both essential and inessential. People were climbing and jumping on the racks to get the last bit of stock at the back. Sad and ridiculous.

I read news articles and am dismayed at the selected questions from the audience, which are either representative of incredible ignorance of basic health knowledge, or are cherry-picked for effect. I am not sure which is worse.

While the current administration’s response does not inspire confidence, the relentless panic pushed by the media is disappointing and not at all helpful. The panic itself is viral, contagious, and at least as dangerous as the actual disease. We should do our best to halt the spread of both the disease and of the panic.

Based on the latest, thoughtful, and expert knowledge about the virus and the current situation, you should be about as concerned about COVID-19 as you are the flu. I am more worried about the panic around the disease.

You’re probably going to get COVID-19 at some point. Estimates of infection are reasonably high, with at least one reputable source saying it could be between 40% and 70% of people in America. We live in a connected world, like it or not, and most people around you are tragically selfish and have shockingly little care for basic hygiene and public health. Look at the streets, or the restrooms at your office. 

You are also probably going to survive, unless you are in poor health or a high risk category -- the same sort of thing you would deal with if you contracted influenza. Again, based on what the data suggests, 80% of people will have what feels like a mild cold. 20% will have what feels like a severe flu (which is no joke, either). First estimates are that of all the sick people, as much as 2% could die, though the latest thinking suggests that number will be less than half that. Those most at risk are the groups we always worry about when it gets hot or cold or smoky or anything: the eldery, the very young, and those with compromised immune systems.

COVID-19 is not a death sentence. It is, for most people, going to be somewhere between a cold and a bad flu.

The problem is the numbers. Everyone, including you, is probably going to get it. Even if a small percentage of "everyone" gets sick, it will overwhelm our capacity to manage, and if even a very small percentage of "everyone" dies, that is still an enormous loss of life.

The comments about "it might feel like a bad flu" is not to be dismissive of the seriousness of COVID-19. The flu is non-trivial, even for relatively healthy individuals. I had the flu several years ago, and it was the worst I have ever felt, including compared to some significant recent illnesses(!). A former co-worker had the swine flu and lost 20 pounds in a few weeks. He was a healthy young man and still had to be hospitalized. And again, scale matters. 20% of everyone doesn't get the flu every year.

But, statistically, you will probably be OK, and there are plenty of other diseases and risks even more dangerous you could worry about or do something about but don’t (some of you reading this don’t get regular flu shots, or perhaps you smoke, or you drive a car).

If we and the media paid as much attention to flu deaths, car deaths, or other problems as we do to the COVID-19 numbers, the world would be a terrifying (and perhaps healthier and more cautious) place.

There are a few things you can do to mitigate risk for CoVID-19. Wash your hands properly and frequently. Don’t touch your face. Be extremely cautious about what you touch and how you touch it. Avoid people, particularly large groups of strangers. If you get sick, stay home. It is standard and simple, but perhaps not easy.

But precautions are not guarantees. Ultimately, whether or not you get sick is out of your control.
Hoarding toilet paper and ibuprofen isn’t particularly helpful (but you should probably have that anyway for when the earthquake or other disaster hits).

Panic is completely counterproductive for everyone, however. Turn the news down. It is trying to agitate you and get your emotions worked up. That emotional state makes their advertising more effective, and it keeps you coming back for another hit of anxiety and despair.

Predictably, America’s response so far, from the government to the news to social media, has mostly been “buy stuff”, and because capitalism is triumphant, people do, even those who know better. We love “fighting” by wielding our credit cards, perhaps because it makes us feel like we are actually doing something, taking agency, sacrificing. Most of this hoarding is not helpful. The food will go to waste. You won’t wear your masks properly, if at all. You’ll have that ibuprofen for years until you notice the expiration date has passed, and that will also go in the landfill.

We obsess over what we can buy or acquire to shield us, but stuff won’t protect us and it won’t save us. Try not to be a part of the panic.

The current administration seems focused on the stock market, economy, and interest rates, as if the real danger and tragedy is purely or primarily financial. There is some reason to be concerned, as the induced panic is causing governments to cancel events and people to hide out at home rather than going out.

Businesses have taken this as an opportunity to avoid costs they would otherwise not be able to -- they cancel expensive travel, pull out of trade shows they didn’t want to do anyhow (but felt they had to), and shift the cost burden of offices to their employees by “allowing” them to work from home.

This hunkering down and holing up is not sustainable, but it will cause a downturn in the global economy with some lasting impacts for people, even as the companies are able to get big write-offs.

Perhaps more importantly, all this isolation doesn’t actually do much to fight the disease. Current analysis suggests that even China’s severe measures merely delayed the spread of the virus somewhere between a few days and a few weeks. Perhaps that time is useful for governments and the rest of us to prepare for getting sick, but that’s about it.

This moment is also a good one to remind yourself life can be short, there are no guarantees around it, and that you should do your best to celebrate and embrace whatever time you have.

There are many ways you can die suddenly -- vehicle accidents, embolisms, strokes, heart problems, random gun violence...I’m sure you have your own list. But you are going to die from something at some point, and the circumstances remain largely out of your control.

Do not let fear stop you from living and enjoying your life (once shelter-in-place ends), because that would be the greatest tragedy of all.

COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere. It is out there, waiting, and it will still be there when the current panic subsides. You’re probably going to get it, and you’re probably going to be fine. Take reasonable precautions. Live your life.

Despite my somewhat critical tone, we should be optimistic and positive. Apparently people can be moved to action, even if it is the wrong kind of action and for the wrong reasons. One wonders how we could channel this into effort and change around more serious and pressing issues, such as climate change.