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When Pandemic Fears Spread Faster Than Deadly Illness

November 16th, 2020

To fear is to be human.  When a bear charges you in the woods, fear is a natural, human response.

Irrational fear, however, is dangerous, and when it is fed, a world of crazy is possible, as is taking place in Vermont (which I will comment upon in my next blog).

The masterpiece Kristin Lavransdatter by Nobel Laureate Sigrid Unset, ends on a cautionary note about fear.  Set in the 14th century during the bubonic plague pandemic that decimated Europe, the novel’s main character, for whom the book is titled, had a conversation with her son, Skule.  She addressed the risks he faced in venturing out during such a dangerous time when the disease was spreading and the death toll mounting.

“Skule shook his head and laughed without mirth. ‘Oh, I think soon it won’t matter where I am.  It’s useless to be frightened; fearful men are half dead already.’”  (Page 1101)

America is presently roiled by waves of both natural fear (Covid is a serious infectious disease that has taken the lives of over 200,000 Americans, primarily elderly Americans), and irrational fear (Covid is an existential threat to most citizens, when the data clearly shows that it is not, and that advances in treatment and common-sense health precautions can manage this pandemic until a vaccine is widely available).

The pandemic today is not remotely like the bubonic plague that wiped out entire households and villages, killed tens, maybe hundreds, of millions of people.  The bubonic plague was called “Black Death” because it did not discriminate between young and old, or those with compromised immune systems from those perfectly healthy.

But what the two pandemics do have in common is what Kristin and her son were discussing – the presence of fear, and how to manage and overcome it.

Fear-mongering

On October 27thThe New York Times ran a lead story, “Hospitals Are Reeling Under a 46 Percent Spike in Covid-19 Patients.”  If there is a journalism award for “super-spreader fear mongering” news reporting, then I nominate this piece.  I quote and highlight phrases and words from this one article:

“Hospitals around the United States are reeling from the rampaging spread of the coronavirus…raising fears about the capacity of regional health care systems to respond to overwhelming demand…The exploding case numbers point to a volatile new phase…the surge of hospitalizations is crippling some cities…city’s earlier surge…Hundreds of health workers…are deploying to El Paso, including an ambulance strike team…The situation is also becoming critical…hospitals are struggling…case numbers have risen to fearsome new levels in recent days…Twenty-six states are at or near record numbers of new infections…smaller cities…are struggling most acutely…big cities are starting to spiral, with alarming trends emergingescalating case numberssteep rise in deaths…nearby hospitals are overwhelmed by coronavirus hospitalizations…the mood was somber…loud beeping sent staff members running to her room, frantically grabbing personal protection gear…The patient’s oxygen levels had plummeted to dangerously low levels…the woman lay on the bed, now intubated, eyes glazed over and her face pale…Staff members still seem in shock…fighting constant exhaustion…worries about how much longer the staff can endure.  They are emotionally and physically exhausted…overcrowded hospital ward…El Paso’s mayor, had failed to order a shutdown of the city to curb the spike in cases.”

Three weeks later, the “surge” didn’t “cripple” El Paso, much less find replication in other cities in America.  The “exploding case numbers” and “alarming trends” did not lead to the catastrophe the article presaged.  I am not suggesting that what the reporter wrote wasn’t true.  But it was not the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It seemed designed to fit a pre-conceived narrative to fan irrational fear into flame.

I am not downplaying in any way the loss of life that occurred in El Paso, or has occurred since Covid began.  America should safeguard the elderly and make the protection of health and long term care workers, and their fair compensation, a priority.  I am pointing out the Pavlovian panic button response that now dominates the major news outlet headlines, and the actions of many of our leaders in spreading fear.

I already have written in support of a prudent public health strategy to contain the spread of the virus by safeguarding those at risk of grave illness and death – what the Great Barrington Declaration termed “focused protection” – without fomenting fears, locking down the economy, and creating a humanitarian crisis of a much greater proportion.  Our elderly poor, disabled, and mentally ill deserve protection strategies that are comprehensive, common sense, and based on facts, not fears.  They don’t need a world of crazy.

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