It seems fitting to be writing about the coronavirus after having gone to a concert on Monday, perhaps the last to be permitted for a while in my county.
The opening song at this concert was the title-song of the album: “fear inoculum,” which happens to nicely summarize my attitude on the state of things with this latest epidemic.
I do not mean to be petty about the dangers of COVID-19. Although the symptoms and mortality-rate are comparable to the flu, the rate of transmission seems to be much greater, and an otherwise comparable disease which spreads to an incomparable number can have disproportionate results. Further, we don’t fully understand what the nature of this disease is. So far, much of what we know is superficial.
But from what we do know, it seems safe to say that the greatest danger of this illness is not the illness itself, but the fear and response to it. Many have worried about economic ramifications, which are perhaps already being felt. But at a more personal, physiological level, the fear alone can become an immune-compromising source of stress. Given the flu-like nature of COVID-19, this anxiety and stress become a little self-defeating if one hopes to avoid becoming sick.
Many have pointed out similarities in responses between Corona and SARS, bird-flu, swine-flu, Ebola, and many other epidemic scares over the past decade. To be fair, we are already passed the infection numbers of those previous illnesses, and have reached this point on a much shorter time-line. It would not be good to dismiss an actual danger just because people cried wolf three or four too many times in the past.
But what are the experts suggesting we — as individuals –do in response to this outbreak?
Wash your hands. Don’t sneeze on people. Don’t touch your face a lot. Stay home if you’re sick. Avoid crowded areas.
Aside from the last point, these are all common bits of flu-season wisdom, if not even more general expectations of first-world decency. These normal precautions will not only help reduce the risk of spreading the disease, but will also help you survive and recover in the event that you do contract it. Almost everyone who has been dying from the corona virus has had other complicating health issues.
To keep perspective, it is worth remembering that as of January, there have already been 15 million cases of the regular flu in the 2019-2020 season, including 8,200 deaths. That’s just in the United States.
It is good that regional quarantines and travel bans have been implemented. Aside from reducing the spread of the disease, I think there has been too much migration and travel over the past several decades anyhow. The so-called “advancement” in health over the last several centuries has really just been a return to the levels of health humans ordinarily enjoyed prior to urban life in cities, which has historically been the greatest impediment to good health. A little bit more isolation, less international connection, and less “finding oneself” everywhere but your actual home town and country is good for a plethora of reasons, disease prevention being only one.
But these broader measures aside, there is very little to actually be done about this corona virus, beyond the ordinary measures one would take to avert a flu. And should one contract the virus, it is not significantly worse than the flu anyhow. So the next best thing one could do would be to stop worrying about it. The stress and anxiety that follows from keeping a constant, wary eye on the latest news isn’t just unhelpful; it is actively unhelpful when a healthy immune system is the best defense against the virus. Worrying about the disease — and following “current events” generally — is not good for your immune system. It isn’t really good for you in general.
As Paul Atreides said, fear is the mind-killer… and in a very real sense, a killer of the more physical kind. It is the real pandemic, more so perhaps than the latest exotic disease. Fear eats away sleep and perverts our diets. It divides our attention and corrupts our judgment. It unbalances our chemistry and corrodes our relationships. Fear is the greater contagion.
Not all fear I am referring to here is specific to the virus, which just happens to be today’s spectacle. If you were a Democrat in 2016, then Trump was very probably a great source of anxiety and fear. And what came of it? He was repeatedly and sometimes unfavorably compared with Hitler: where are the concentration camps? Where is the promised apocalypse? Where are the bodies and the resurging white supremacists? So far as I can tell, the Alt Right died under Trump’s presidency. The same point can be made of Republicans and their fear of “communists!!” on the Democratic side.
It’s not that there is no legitimacy whatsoever to the concerns people have relating to current affairs. But if we engage in politics to improve our own lives, then our anxiety and fear is almost always self-defeating. The news stories, more so than their objects, are the real viral epidemic, one which has been going on since long before January of 2020.
And if we are engaging in politics and following current events for some reason other than to improve our own lives, that in itself is a motivation worth exploring… and perhaps worth excising.