Well-Being Prevention & Cures

Why are we panicked about coronavirus — and calm about the flu?

The virus is spreading like wildfire. In the past few months, it has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 Americans — and yet no one is panicking.

We’re not talking about the coronavirus, but the flu. The influenza virus poses a far greater risk to Americans than we’re ready to admit.

Why are so many more fearful of a virus spreading far from home?

Medical doctors and psychologists agree that humans are wired to fear the unknown more than the evils they face every day.

“Influenza is an old friend, or should I say, enemy,” said Dr. William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine health policy at Vanderbilt University. “We know it well, so it doesn’t send us in a panic.”

Psychologist Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon said epidemics such as Ebola and the coronavirus “hit all of the hot buttons” that trigger irrational fear in people even if they’re far from ground zero of the crisis.

“It can be fatal, it’s invisible and hard to protect against, exposure is involuntary and it’s not clear that the authorities are in control of the situation,” he said in an American Psychological Association report.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates the influenza in 2018-2019 was associated with more than 35.5 million illnesses and a staggering 34,200 deaths in the United States. This season alone has already sickened an estimated 19 million Americans, hospitalized 140,000 and killed 10,000.

Schaffner explained that one of the scariest aspects of newcomer viruses — such as Zika, Ebola and now the coronavirus — is that they are mysterious to the very people who we trust to protect us. Health officials have said they are not sure how quickly the coronavirus spreads or when they will be able to develop a vaccine or effective treatment.

“That’s honest and clear, but it’s not reassuring to most people,” he said. “They see a new virus and the origins are remote, from a part of the world most Americans have never visited. They see the chaos it has created. So people feel powerless. It’s that feeling of powerlessness that makes people afraid.”

Despite this, psychologists agree that honesty is the best policy.

“The antidote to fear and uncertainty is transparency and timely, accurate information from reliable sources,” writes Dr. Robert Bartholomew in Psychology Today. “The problem with this strategy is that we are living in an age of government and media distrust.”