What should we think of the current pandemic of fear? I argue that the fear we experience need not be irrational. On the contrary, many current facts warrant fear. Moreover, experiencing this emotion might be a good thing, for it can help us focus our attention on what matters as well as drive us to action.
Polls suggests that negative emotions such as anxiety and fear are escalating worldwide and there is talk of a pandemic of fear. Indeed, anxiety and fear are spreading at a rate that may seem out of proportion with the danger involved in the current pandemic. As a recent title “SARS-CoV-2: fear versus data” bluntly suggests, the current fear might seem nothing but irrational. Put differently, our fear would not be grounded in facts and it would fail to match reality. According to the author of that paper, “the problem of SARS-CoV-2 is probably being overestimated, as 2.6 million people die of respiratory infections each year compared with less than 4000 deaths for SARS-CoV-2 at the time of writing.” (Roussell et al. 2020) A trifle, to put it differently. Given this, we should better stop feeling fear, supposing that this was a feasible option. Obviously, current numbers are quite different: 42,032 deaths worldwide on March 31, 2020, according to the John Hopkins COVID-19 Resource Center. But even so, it might seem that compared to the 2.6 million deaths due to respiratory infections, not to mention other causes of deaths, our fear remains misplaced.
Is the fear we experience regarding the pandemic irrational? Should we opt for facts instead of fear? A first point to stress is that it is hugely misleading to oppose fear and data or fact. Indeed, it is not quite clear in what sense fear and facts are supposed to be in opposition. What is clear is that fear can be irrational and misadjusted, and it can lead us to stupid action, such as buying tons of toilet paper. However, fear need not be irrational. As emotions theorists recognize, fear is a natural response to threats, which can be well-adjusted and useful. One that makes it easier to adapt one’s actions to dangerous situations by focussing our attention and energy on the threat.
The main point in my mind is that many aspects of the pandemic clearly warrant fear. Maybe up to now, the death rate is not impressive, and maybe most of us will survive the pandemic. However, even if most of us do not fear for our own lives, we are all beginning to fear for the lives of some elderly relative. Moreover, recent data suggests that the virus would have infected 90% of the world’s population and killed 40.6 million people if no mitigation measures had been taken to combat the pandemic (Nature, March 27, 2020). That is far from a trifle.
Maybe it is not rational to fear this outcome; maybe we should even feel relief, since many countries have taken strong mitigation measures. Québec and Canada certainly did. Unfortunately, not all countries have the will or the means to take such measures. Consider Haiti or the Gaza strip. There is no way they can control the pandemic by social distancing measures, etc. and there is no way they can provide care to infected patients. In these parts of the world, the virus will spread unhampered, something that is bound to happen in other places, such as refugee camps. This clearly warrants fear.
Another important aspect of the pandemic that warrants fear is the worldwide economic recession that will result. With the massive layoffs and the expected bankruptcies, the future looks grim. Again, some countries will do better compared to others but the uncertainty concerning the future is ground for anxiety and fear even in the well-off parts of the world.
The current facts warrant fear. The question that arises is whether we should be afraid of this fear. Not necessarily. For fear need not be panic. It need not trigger irrational behaviour. On the contrary, fear helps us to focus our attention on the threat and it spurs us to action. This is a time for action and initiative, as well as for solidarity, and fear can well be an ally and not enemy to help dealing with the current threat to humanity. In the hope that we can avoid the worst outcome.
Christine Tappolet (Université de Montréal)
Thanks to Peter Dietsch and to Hannah Carnegy-Arbuthnott for helpful comments.
Roussel, Y., Giraud-Gatineau A., Jimeno M.T., Rolain J,M., Zandotti C., Colson P., Raoult D., “SARS-CoV-2: fear versus data”, Int J Antimicrob Agents, 2020 Mar 19.