Many Western countries looked on with a hint of dread as Chinese authorities clamped down their populations in January in the hopes of containing the spread of Covid-19. But that dread gave way to palpable fear and gnawing anxiety when the novel coronavirus touched down in Europe in March and April of this year.
Fear of contagion, fear of disease, fear of one’s own death or the death of one’s loved ones. Fear of transmitting the virus to an elderly or vulnerable fellow citizen. Fear of being personally or politically complicit in yet more Covid deaths.
Arguably, it is precisely this fear that has helped us find the energy and will-power to step up and protect ourselves and our fellow citizens from the worst ravages of an unfolding pandemic.
On the other hand, the very same fear that protects us from death and disease may become magnified out of all proportion to its object.
In a society saturated with instantaneous communication and publicity, any threat that is repeated ad nauseum by Twitter celebrities, politicians, and journalists may become so engrained in the public psyche that it appears that one and only one threat is lurking around every street corner.
Indeed, a specific threat may become so salient in the public mind that it appears far more imposing and omnipresent than it really is. If that happens, we may, sadly, descend into collective neurosis.
For example, when ISIS and its affiliates started executing Western citizens and opening fire on cafés in Paris, they gained a share of international media coverage that was entirely disproportionate to the real threat posed by international terrorism to ordinary Western citizens.
While ISIS were adept at creating the sort of public spectacle that could strike terror into the hearts of citizens, most citizens had a far, far greater chance of being killed in a car accident than being killed by an ISIS agent. Yet the media was not buzzing with chatter about car accidents.
Given what we have learned so far about the evolution and attack patterns of Covid-19, a strong case can be made that the level of anxiety and fear we are seeing across much of the world is entirely disproportionate to the real danger this disease now represents.
While the enormous anxiety and fear surrounding Covid-19 was surely understandable when the disease first landed on our doorstep, it may be time to take off our masks for a moment and do a fact check: was the threat really so big that it warranted closing entire economies for weeks and months on end?
It seems to me that our ongoing obsession with suppression and “flattening the curve,” which may have made some sense in the early days of the pandemic, when the true scale of the threat was hard to assess, has become increasingly more difficult to justify as the relatively modest scale of the threat posed by Covid-19 has become apparent.
The mismatch between our constant anxiety and vigilance on the one hand, and the risk actually posed by Covid-19 suggests that we may even be suffering from some form of collective neurosis.
A case in point: The other day (21/6), Minister for Health Simon Harris tweeted out, “One third of the new confirmed cases of #Covid19 in Ireland are people under the age of 35. No group is immune…”
Minister Harris is undoubtedly aware that the vast majority of “cases” of Covid-19 involve little or no serious disease beyond flu symptoms, and that under 35s without serious health problems run an extremely low risk of becoming severely ill or dying from Covid-19 (for example, one report from the US Center for Disease Control indicates that in March 2020, approximately 2.5 persons per 100,000 in the 18-49 age category were hospitalised across 14 States).
Now, I do not mean to belittle the tragedy Covid-19 has inflicted on so many families, or the strain it has placed on so many doctors and nurses. My heart goes out to anyone who has lost friends or relatives, or suffered serious illness, at the hands of Covid-19.
But just as we may empathize with the victims of a terror attack while being mindful not to be consumed with an obsessive and irrational fear of terrorism, in a similar way we should not allow our compassion for the vicims of Covid-19 to stand in the way of making a rational and balanced assessment of the real risk SARS-CoV-2 poses to our society.
Any threat that gains the lion’s share of media coverage for months on end, including the threat of Covid-19, should at least prompt us to wonder whether our collective fear might be driven by the salience of a certain public narrative rather than by a cool-headed assessment of the available evidence.
It is now known that Covid-19 overwhelmingly targets the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions, and likely has an overall lethality rate in the range of a severe flu, while declining death rates across the world highlighted by renowned scientific and mathematical experts like Nobel laureate Prof. Michael Levitt and Dr Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, seem to suggest some form of natural immunity in a significant proportion of the population.
These findings are good news, because they mean that the real threat of Covid-19 is probably far more modest than what was initially feared, and with the right measures such as better hospital preparedness and better care facilities for the elderly, future waves of the virus may be much less lethal.
Nevertheless, the extremity and destructiveness of the measures adopted to cope with the pandemic – in particular, national lockdowns – do raise an obvious question: why did so many countries across the world have recourse to such a crude and untested method as shelter-in-place orders instead of favouring more targeted interventions for at-risk groups such as the elderly and those with diabetes and suppressed immunity?
Could it be that we were so consumed with fear and panick that in the absence of hard data, we unwittingly sacrificed the health, safety, and livelihood of many citizens (by exposing them to high risks of untreated illness, domestic abuse, unemployment, or depression) on the altar of “Stay home, stay safe” campaigns, “just in case” our worst nightmares came to fruition?
Could it be that instead of focusing our strategies intelligently on at-risk populations, such as the elderly, we succumbed to our deepest fears and rashly squandered precious energy and resources on protecting those who did not need protecting – the young and healthy?
This article has been updated and extended