Covid-19: Normalizing Fear

Guest Columnist

There’s nothing to worry about, nothing to fear. Really.

That’s what I hear from many patients and acquaintances: Covid-19 is overblown. The worst is over. The restaurants are open, the bars are filling, the beaches blanketed. Disney World is up for business. Everything is getting back to normal.

Except one thousand Americans are dying every day. (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/)

First a little perspective. America went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq over 9/11. Over 2500 people were murdered that morning.

Covid-19, in America, kills that many in less than three days.

Covid-19 kills as many in less than two months as Americans died in the many years of the Vietnam War, or the horrifying bloodshed of the Korean War.

That does not include the growing numbers of Covid-19 survivors with lung disease, kidney disease, autoimmune disorders, and chronic fatigue. Many are now disabled, and may ultimately represent a far larger number than those dead.

If a thousand Americans were killed in a massacre each day it would constitute unacceptable American carnage.

So how did fear and risk of Covid-19 get normalized? Here are a few possible explanations:


Not Me or My Friends.

People often ask me if I know anyone who died of Covid-19. Yes, I reply. My neighbor. Friends in NY.

“Oh, that’s horrible,” they say. “We’re so sorry for you.”

But not for the thousand who die every day?

Many have now personalized the virus. They and theirs are okay. “We” have not been hit. It’s the “others” who are harmed.

Except my pandemic is your pandemic. Infections respect no one’s identity or place. If I get sick, so can you; if you get sick, so can I – and everyone I meet and love. If you do not dramatically control or better, eradicate an epidemic on a community basis, all are at risk.

That people personalize the risk to family and those they know speaks volumes about our shared sense of community.


Past is Prologue.

“We haven’t had a problem, so why should we?”

Before Covid-19, people were often frightened of flying in an airplane. In that sardine can you have no personal control. If the pilot makes a mistake, or Boeing is too careless with software, you die.

Yet flying in a commercial flight in the U.S. has produced virtually no fatality for years. It is far more dangerous to drive to the airport than take a flight.

Still, people are scared of events they have read and heard about. Though folks like me remember our parents’ fear of polio and watch infections like TB run out of control in different parts of the world, Americans have not experienced a major pandemic for over a century.

Many know that a hurricane has never devastated their town yet still get out of the way. An invisible invader of far greater power to kill or maim seems to provoke much less concern.

It’s Not Happened Here.

Each day I read or hear of someone from a small town saying or writing it’s time to open everything up, because “nobody around here got sick,” and we’re too far away from all that stuff to let it “destroy our economy and community.”

GRIDS, which became AIDS, was once far away. So far away that the president did not say its name over four years after its deadly appearance.(https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-rest/202005/aids-and-covid-19-weve-been-here)

In part, that was because AIDS first hit the gay community, a prejudice deeply remembered. Now over thirty million have died. An AIDS vaccine was promised by Secretary Margaret Heckler by 1986. It does not exist.

Sars-Cov-2 is far more transmissible than AIDS, having already reached almost every country on Earth.


Mixed Messages

Please consider this statement: “We will not see diseases like the coronavirus come here.”

Kayleigh McEnany on February 25th, then press secretary for the Trump Re-Election campaign, before her elevation to White House press secretary. On her first day in the new job, she declared “I will never lie to you.

Or “It’s going to disappear. One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

President Trump, February 28th.

Many people complain to me they’re receiving “all kinds of stories about what’s happening, I can’t make any sense of what they’re telling me.”

The rules of how to deal with pandemics laid out in White House plans that have been around decades and echo that of dozens of nations, emphasize clear and consistent communication of risks and required actions.

If the virus could speak, it would explain how programmed confusion has made its species survival far easier (“Interview with the Virus ” https://regenerationhealthnews.com/sleep/interview-with-the-virus/)  For us, its victims, that confusion is lethal.

A thousand deaths a day does not constitute a disappearance.


Bottom Line:

Americans are now getting “normalized” to the risk and death counts of Covid-19. The reasons cited above are a few of many. They may explain why tracing and tracking and quarantining, organized in most countries on a coordinated, national level, are a discomforting patchwork in the U.S. Yet such rather cheap programs allow you to assay things people really want to know, like the risk of opening schools; going to a restaurant; getting on an airplane. They have allowed countries like Taiwan, close to the source of Covid-19, to keep total deaths to seven people.

That many Americans die of Covid-19 every ten minutes.

How do we accept such risks so readily? Perhaps another answer comes from Jonathan Schell, who wrote movingly of the risk of nuclear weapons: “The society that has accepted the threat of its utter destruction soon finds it hard to react to lesser ills.”

Or perhaps Americans just feel a roll of the dice is what’s life’s all about, as when Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry in the 1971 Don Siegel film classic asks a bank robber, “Do I feel lucky?”

Dirty Harry is packing a .44 Magnum.

How lucky do you feel right now?

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