The Coronavirus Is Causing a Global Panic—but That’s a Good Thing | The New Yorker
Save Story In a “Twilight Zone”–like drama spawned by eerie uncertainty, the world is shutting down a bit more each day, as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates across sixty countries on six continents—all in just nine weeks. There’s no longer an illusion that the contagion can be contained. And this is only the beginning. Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiologist and the director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, estimated that between forty per cent and seventy per cent of the world’s roughly five billion adults will get the virus, which was first reported in China, in late December.
The United States reached a turning point over the weekend, as cases of the sickness—initially isolated in California, Oregon, and Washington State, on the West Coast—were confirmed in Illinois, in the Midwest, and New York, Rhode Island, and Florida, on the East Coast. (On Monday, four new coronavirus deaths were announced in Washington State, bringing the total to six.) For Americans, the problem is no longer stemming the tide of a foreign pathogen. “The emphasis has shifted—from stopping them from infecting us to stopping us from infecting each other ,” Lipsitch said. “There is no American exceptionalism in exposure to coronavirus.”
In the United States, transmission is likely already far, far wider than the ninety publicly confirmed cases on Monday because of U.S. officials’ failure to do sufficient testing. “We haven’t found hundreds or thousands of cases because we’re not looking hard enough,” Lipsitch said. “We don’t have the testing capacity to find out what’s going on. We’ve looked largely at people who had a relation to China or high-risk areas.” That’s too low, he said, by several factors of ten. He called the initial U.S. response “utterly inadequate.” Lipsitch told me that the Chinese government’s response in Hubei Province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, was more thorough than the approach taken so far in the U.S. by the Trump Administration. In Guangdong province, Chinese health officials tested more than three hundred thousand patients in so-called fever clinics, where people who think they have a fever of any origin are seen. In contrast, the U.S. has been testing a handful of isolated cases. “Our government’s response was something like one per cent—or less—than what China did,” Lipsitch said.
Asia and Europe also have reacted faster to the outbreak. Disruptions have impacted virtually every aspect of public life there. Japan has closed all schools, effective Monday, until April, turning away thirteen million students and leaving their parents scrambling to figure out what to do with them. On Saturday, baseball games were played without audiences, after the Japanese government’s order to cancel or postpone sports and entertainment events: Seiya Inoue, of the Chiba Lotte Marines, homered against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in an empty stadium. Models at the Tokyo Girls Collection strutted down the runway with no one in attendance. And horses at the Nakayama Racecourse ran without spectators. In a sign of the risks ahead, a cruise-ship operator in Japan filed for bankruptcy on Monday, due to the many cancellations of night cruises that once ferried up to a thousand people around the sights of Kobe. The fate of the Summer Olympics, in Tokyo, is still to be determined. In South Korea, the government is considering prosecuting the leader of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus for gross negligence or murder, because sixty percent of the country’s more than four thousand confirmed cases are sect members. BTS, one of the country’s most popular musical groups, called off tour dates scheduled for April in Seoul, while the American pop-punk band Green Day postponed shows across Asia.
In Europe, Italy has quarantined eleven towns—encompassing more than fifty thousand people—hit by the coronavirus, while the famed La Scala opera house, in Milan, was shuttered . Despite the precautions, the number of confirmed cases in Italy shot up by fifty per cent over the weekend. On Sunday, the staff of the Louvre, the world’s busiest museum, voted to close its doors, owing to a fear that the Paris institution—and its tens of thousands of monthly visitors—could become a breeding ground for the virus. France, which has more than a hundred cases, enacted a nationwide ban on all public events bringing together more than five thousand people. Switzerland banned all events with more than a thousand attendees, which instantly axed the Geneva Motor Show. In Spain, the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, was cancelled. Germany, where nine of the country’s sixteen states have reported cases of the coronavirus, cancelled one of the world’s most important travel-and-tourism trade fairs, due to be held in Berlin. Greece cancelled all activities relating to the annual Carnival celebration. A bistro in Milan lacked customers on February 27th. Photograph by Andrea Mantovani / NYT / Redux
In the Middle East, Iran, a coronavirus hot spot , with the highest mortality rate in the world, cancelled Friday prayers and closed schools and universities in twenty-four of its thirty-one provinces. Saudi Arabia, the guardian of Islam’s holy sites, banned foreign pilgrims. Qatar cancelled the motorcycle Grand Prix, which was scheduled to start Sunday. Morocco announced that it was postponing all sports and cultural events, even though it has no confirmed cases—yet. “This is not a time for fear,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, said on Thursday. “This is a time for taking action to prevent infections and save lives now.” On Friday, Americans began preparing for possible shutdowns and quarantines. When the first cases were still three thousand miles away, on the West Coast, several stores where I live, in Washington, D.C., were out of Purell, Clorox wipes, and cleaning gloves, and low on toilet paper and nonperishable goods, such as canned vegetables and pasta. “We sold out of every can of beans in the store Friday night,” a manager at a local Trader Joe’s told me.
The growing appearance of public panic may be a good thing, however. Lipsitch called precautionary steps rational. “People are understandably confused. I’ve been telling people to get bleach and alcohol-related cleansers and several months’ supply of medicine and the like,” he told me. “That doesn’t mean that you’ll have to use them, but there is a good chance that you will.” Advertisement
Behavioral scientists, psychologists, and epidemiologists are loath to use the word “panic.” “We prefer to think in terms of behavior, in conditions of uncertainty,” Kathleen Tierney, a sociologist at the Institute of Behavioral Science, at the University of Colorado, Boulder, told me. Baruch Fischhoff, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University and a former president of the Society for Risk Analysis, said that panic comes in three forms, only one of which applies to the range of reactions to the coronavirus crisis. The most basic form is feeling panicky, which most people feel at some time, Fischhoff said. It’s bad for quality of life, but it’s not associated with specific behavior; most people feel it at some point but don’t act on it. The second type of panic is allowing stress to overcome normal, reasoned responses. But it, too, is fairly rare, research shows. Most people don’t lose control of themselves. “The idea of mass panic—people running in the streets and abandoning normal behavior—is the myth of panic,” Fischhoff said. “That’s the kind of panic you see more in movies than in everyday life. In fact, most people band together.” An enduring image from the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center is of people running from the scene. But the evacuation from the towers themselves—each with more than a hundred floors—was “extremely orderly,” Fischhoff said. “Egress was less viscous. In a horrible situation, people were brave and very orderly.”
The third kind of panic is the type witnessed—among people in widely diverse societies—since the outbreak of the coronavirus. It includes panic buying and hoarding. “It reflects the attitude ‘better safe than sorry,’ ” Tierney, the sociologist, said. The good news is that people are lining up—albeit in long lines—in an orderly fashion to buy groceries. No one is breaking into Trader Joe’s to get access to food, she said.
Yet panic buying also reflects a lack of faith in government. “If you don’t believe that the people whose job it is—whether elected or appointed—to manage a crisis or take care of everyone in a difficult situation, then you think it’s everyone for themselves,” Fischhoff said. That behavior may be ill-informed, but it’s still a reasoned response. “If you believe that it’s possible that people will be locked in their houses for a period of time, as has happened in some places around the world, and you don’t know the risk probability, and you don’t know that people will be taken care of, it’s not unreasonable to say, ‘I better take care of myself.’ ” People who are buying goods feel that they are buying peace of mind, he said. “What is the cost to me if I buy nonperishable goods sooner rather than later? What are the odds that I’ll use them, even if I don’t like beans very much?” Fischoff added. “History may prove them right—and they’ll end up eating a lot of beans.” In the end, however, “It’s really a reflection of the failure of leadership.”
The coronavirus’s swift speed and its range of contagion have stunned governments and public-health experts. “ COVID -19 is turning out to be a remarkably intelligent evolutionary adversary,” the cognitive scientist Samuel Paul Veissière wrote on Thursday, for Psychology Today . In contrast, Ebola was a “rather stupid virus,” because it kills its host. The coronavirus is different. “By exploiting vulnerabilities in human psychology selectively bred by its pathogen ancestors, it has already shut down many of our schools, crashed our stock market, increased social conflict and xenophobia, reshuffled our migration patterns, and is working to contain us in homogenous spaces where it can keep spreading.” The bad news, he said, is that people living in densely populated areas are “very likely” to contract the virus—“if not this year, next year, or the year after as it undergoes its seasonal global migration pattern.” The good news is that most people won’t die of it, Veissière said.
That may not be reassuring in the uncertain early phases of a new global disease. But it would also be wrong to catastrophize the virus or the reaction to it, epidemiologists and psychologists say. “That stuff of disaster movies is not how people normally react—and I think that will hold as we face the coronavirus pandemic,” Tierney said. “I expect more pro-social behavior rather than antisocial behavior.” And maybe lots of shopping. More: Coronavirus Panic Pandemics Psychology On The Trail Sign up for On the Trail and get election insights from New Yorker writers in your in-box each week. Enter your e-mail address