Pandemics and paranoia

Are you afraid of the coronavirus? Because I have to be honest, I’m not.

“But Matt,” you might be saying, “you are a healthy man in your thirties! You might not think you are in danger, but others are!”

Well, sort of. Setting aside the fact that, for whatever reason, it appears that men are a great deal more susceptible to the coronavirus than women, I have some other concerning characteristics that actually makes me far more vulnerable. For instance, I take a biologic medication that suppresses my immune system and makes me far less able to fight off infections.

But honestly, even if I were 90 years old, in poor health, and completely  immunocompromised, I wouldn’t be panicking over this.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not making light of coronavirus. It is something that should be monitored, actively fought against by health care professionals, and us as citizens should take reasonable precautions to stay healthy ourselves. Not hacking and coughing into the air all the time, washing your hands thoroughly, and social distancing, for instance, makes sense.

But should you be spending $400 for hand sanitizer? Should panic-induced runs on toilet paper be sweeping the country right now?

In other words, should you be living your life in fear and panic about the latest new virus sweeping the country?

My answer to that is a rather emphatic no.

A notice hangs near the cash register at a bagel shop on Wednesday in New Rochelle, New York. With business slowed since a cluster of coronavirus cases hit the New York City suburb, the shop will be closed beginning Thursday for the two weeks when the state enforces a containment area shuttering several schools and houses of worship and sending in the National Guard to help with what appears to be the nation’s biggest cluster of coronavirus cases. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Fear and panic are the mortal enemies of logic and reason. When human beings are fearful, they turn into base, instinct-driven primates. When millions of us do this at the same time, really idiotic things start to happen, because there are always those that are all too happy to prey on our irrational monkey brains for their own benefit.

The media, for instance, particularly television news, knows that fear sells. When a scary new infection begins to spread, they could choose to be dispassionate, scientific, and rational. All too often — as is the case now — they instead choose to be hyperbolic. Mass panic is great for business.

But we must resist the urge to feed that mass panic.

Yes, the virus is concerning, and worthy of our attention. Yes, we should be careful and cautious. Yes, it will spread, there will be more positive cases, and yes, even more deaths. I’m not saying you shouldn’t care, or shouldn’t know about it.

But cancelling South by Southwest? Cancelling the local St. Patrick’s Day Parade? Holding political debates with no audience? Considering holding sporting events with no fans? Banning groups of people larger than 250 from gathering?

Is that logical?

To some, I suppose it is. Health officials, who are doing their best to get a grip on the spread of the infection, would undoubtedly prefer it if no one did much of anything for a few months to make sure the virus doesn’t spread.

But just because certain things — like not living your life at all and instead living in a cave — would indeed help contain a new virus, that does not make them necessarily appropriate to do.

Look, I am obviously not the first person to make the comparison here, but the coronavirus is essentially a flu-like infection that has a higher mortality rate.

Anywhere between 20,000 and 60,000 people die in the United States every year. And do we see mass panic in the media, large scale events being cancelled, and general mass hysteria?

We do not. Consider, for instance, that it is estimated that in the 2016-2017 flu season, 38,000 people died from the flu. The very next year, in the 2017-2018 flu season, an estimated 61,000 people died from the flu. That means that the delta — the change from one year to the next — was about 23,000 more deaths.

And do you recall a mass hysteria running through the country that year? Do you even recall it being discussed much in the news? Were large events cancelled? Were you told to avoid shaking hands and turning yourself into a hermit?

More importantly, were you asked to cancel absolutely everything and turn into a recluse? Because doing then what we are doing now would have likely saved tens of thousands of lives that year. Yet we did not act. Were those lives not valuable to us?

They were, but while certain measures to mitigate the spread of a disease like this will unquestionably be effective, there are other considerations that are also important to weigh, like the impact those actions will have on broader society, and our lives. That’s why we were told that it was a bad flu season, and we should be a little more careful, and we went on with our lives while 23,000 more people died than the year before.

Again, I’m not telling you to ignore the coronavirus. I’m not telling you to ignore anything a healthcare professional is telling you about the disease, or to dismissively fail to engage in any social distancing or follow any recommendations. I’m not telling you to start licking door knobs, or hug people who look sick.

What I am saying is that the level of our national panic over this situation is irrational, and is causing its own set of problems which will only get worse with the more panic we express. Just relax, use common sense, be aware of the virus and what’s happening, take reasonable precautions, and live your life.

Matthew Gagnon

About Matthew Gagnon

Matthew Gagnon, of Yarmouth, is the Chief Executive Officer of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. Prior to Maine Heritage, he served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C. Originally from Hampden, he has been involved with Maine politics for more than a decade.