More than once I’ve heard this question: “I don’t get it. Every year the flu kills a lot more people than this coronavirus, and yet everyone seems to be panicking about corona. What’s with that?” That question is like asking, “Cars kill a lot more people than shark bites. How come people don’t sweat driving to the beach, but get panicky when they hear there might be a shark in the water?”
What is it about the coronavirus that scares people more than the annual flu? Let’s pose some answers, and see if they can help with coping. Before we do, let’s note that if you are anxious and afraid, it’s OK. Fear is an adaptive response to potential danger. If you accept the threat and your natural fear reactions as real, you will be more likely to remain vigilant, take precautions, and help reduce – not prevent – your risk of infection. Being afraid can be a good thing. Remember, fear can self-generate and strengthen. That is why acceptance of the reality of the situation is important because then you are more likely to use your fear in appropriate ways.
Back to our question: Why is the reaction to the annual flu less intense for some than to coronavirus? For one thing, the flu is familiar, predictable, and expected. You have experienced it before and know most people get through it OK. There is also the flu shot that gives many a sense of control knowing they have at least reduced their risk of infection. The coronavirus, however, is new, unpredictable, and unknown. Humans have no immunity and, as of now, there is no vaccine. That knowledge naturally intensifies fear.
Reactions to coronavirus are also more exaggerated compared to the flu because the former – but not the latter – has been politicized. Elected officials have injected their self-important agendas into the corona crisis. The result has been a flood of contradictory, confusing, and misleading information that has served to frustrate and anger the public.
Faced with this barrage of agenda-driven information designed to make you feel helpless and dependent on elected “leaders,” what should you do? First of all, whatever your political preference, take off the political goggles and think rationally. Suppose you have a severe, persistent stomach pain. Your neighbor says, “Appendicitis!” A family member says, “Gall bladder!” A friend says, “Diverticulitis!”
Who do you call for clarification, your local congressional representative? Surely not! You would call a professional medical provider. The coping lesson here is simple: Don’t listen to politicians, economists, or other laypeople when they expound on the medical properties and consequences of coronavirus. Tune them out! Listen to the medical professionals. Yes, you will hear words like “may,” “could,” “might,” and “we’ll have to wait until we have more data.” These words, however, do not mean the professionals don’t know anything; they mean that more test data are needed, and that you must think in terms of risk, not certainty.
Closely related to politicization is the spreading of conspiracy theories. There’s no conspiracy here folks. That message is for the weak-minded. The fact is, bad things can happen without human intervention. Contrary to what you may believe, humans do not have absolute dominion over the other organisms on this planet. Viruses have a way of reminding us of that. We are part of nature’s laws.
Politicization also carries the danger of making you think coronavirus is not that big a deal. Maybe not, but don’t bet your health on it. When it comes to coping with health threats, prepare for the worst. Never apologize for being vigilant and taking precautions to minimize potential threats to your health. Those actions are under your control. If you think they are best for you, take those actions.
The coping lessons? Accept reality; do not listen to false messengers with agendas; listen to the medical experts; accept your anxiety as normal and use it to help you plan rationally, and to make informed decisions to reduce – not eliminate – your risk of infection.