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Why Are We So Fearful of the New Coronavirus?

This article was originally published on Psychology Today.

In the thick of a disease outbreak, the line between panic and preparedness can feel perilously thin.

For individuals living with comorbidities like chronic lung and immunodeficiency diseases, the new coronavirus is deadly. To protect them, certain precautions are, indeed, necessary, including the lockdowns enforced by the Chinese government and the temporary travel restrictions placed in the United States and elsewhere.

For those who don’t fall into that category, there is little reason to fear—and a lot of evidence to suggest that even if infection occurs, chances of recovery are high. So far, the mortality rate outside Wuhan, the epicenter of the new coronavirus, has remained below 1 percent. But the anxiety and panic induced by the disease seem as contagious as the disease itself, depleting the surgical mask supply of pharmacies worldwide.

Plenty of health challenges lurk at our doorstep that do more damage and take more lives than the coronavirus. Take seasonal influenza or the flu. So far, there have been no less than 19 million cases of flu-related illnesses recorded this flu season, as well as 10,000 deaths. The new coronavirus, on the other hand, has sickened upwards of 64,000 and killed almost 1,400. The raw numbers cast the flu as a mightier foe—and yet the coronavirus, if its continuing domination of headlines is any indication, has it overshadowed by a wide margin.

Why does the 2019-nCoV outbreak rile our fears so? The discrepancy has to do with how humans perceive risks. Novel threats provoke anxiety in a way that everyday threats do not, triggering a fear response that begins with the part of the brain known as the amygdala and travels via activation of “fight or flight” motor functions throughout the body.

While this evolutionarily honed instinct for the unfamiliar and foreboding can sharpen the senses—a sort of physiological priming for confrontation with a predator—it can also confuse the mind. Many of us, for example, fear plane crashes more than car crashes, even though death by automobile is far more likely. Reminding ourselves of this fact, however, does little to undo the knot that forms deep in the stomach as the plane prepares for takeoff.

If we can’t trust our gut reactions to guide our response to the 2019-nCoV outbreak, then what can we trust? One option is to rely on de facto voices of authority: in this case, national governments. But in today’s world, this is easier said than done.

In China, suspicion of misinformation, intentional rumormongering, and questionable leadership decisions are crippling the lines of communication that run between the Chinese people and their ruling party. The same could be said of the relationship between the President and the people of the United States, where “alternative facts” have become a recurring theme in political discourse.

There is one thing the United States government could do not just to halt further transmission of the new coronavirus, but alleviate the fears surrounding it. Leveraging existing funding mechanisms, like Project BioShield, to develop and stockpile a broad-spectrum, anti-coronavirus drug would both curb the current coronavirus outbreak and prepare populations for outbreaks to come. Unfortunately, until federal commitments of this caliber are made, it will be up to individuals and their communities to find ways to avoid panic in the face of certain doubt.

Some of the more concrete, universally applicable strategies for managing outbreak-related fear and anxiety are safety and prevention-oriented, such as washing your hands regularly, handling food with care, and practicing good hygiene in general. Other methods might involve education and mindful media consumption—for example, seeking out updates from credible health institutions, like the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rather than media outlets more likely to circulate incomplete or false information.

Last but not least, we should keep in mind that even if the coronavirus outbreak demands some degree of social distancing or isolation, staying connected with friends, family, and loved ones—whether it’s through Skype, social media, or a simple phone call—is one of the best ways to cope. Instead of allowing fear to drive us further apart, we can choose instead to reach out, band together, and hold out hope that this novel threat, like so many others before, will be overcome.