Coronavirus: a little knowledge is more dangerous than none

People are more scared about what they know only a little about.

“Being American, I am presented with a problem and expect someone to solve it quickly. It is what I know that concerns me: The virus is global, it kills people, it has wreaked havoc in China and some other countries, and therefore I should be and am afraid. It is not the unknown but the poorly understood that is frightening….” (George Friedman “Geopolitical Futures” )

It seems that “the poorly understood” is what drove thousands of people to stock up on food and essentials at Costco.

When I went on my regular twice-monthly pilgrimage to Costco last week, the parking lot was packed at noon on a weekday. That’s usually a quiet time with relatively few customers. When I asked three employees what was going on, they all answered with the word, “coronavirus”. One employee was really frustrated with how people were panicking. He thought it was senseless. I agreed.

This only reinforces George Friedman’s observation that we humans are frightened more by what is poorly understood then by the unknown.

Even though the virus seems to be only slightly worse than the yearly flu, fear reigns. Who is to blame for this overreaction?

One answer is the media. Taking advantage of the aphorism that, “If it bleeds, it leads”, the media have been quick to have continuous news coverage. Their viewers are deeply concerned about the coronavirus and tune in. But heightened coverage only feeds fear and uncertainty. But are the media really to blame?

If they don’t cover it enough, the media will be criticized for not doing their job. If they overemphasize it, it causes panic. So where is the balance, and what would you do if you were the one deciding how to deal with the virus? How would you present the information so that it both informs and calms?

President Trump has also been criticized for how he has dealt with the viral outbreak. He brought in medical experts and then gave a TV interview where he said a vaccine would be developed in three to four months. Immediately and publicly, a medical expert contradicted him, saying a vaccine could take from a year to a year-and-a-half to develop.

The president is concerned about the 2020 election as he has been since he was sworn into office, while the scientists and medical experts are more concerned with presenting accurate facts. To cope with this issue, Trump assigned Mike Pence to communicate daily with the public. This wasn’t a bad strategy. Trump was trying to downplay the seriousness of the viral spread. In that sense, he was trying to calm the panic, a good goal if it is skillfully employed.

This outbreak, unlike the Mueller investigation and the impeachment investigations and trial, was not caused by Trump. The investigations and the trial were self-inflicted wounds.

But Trump has to appear to be in charge—he has to exhibit confidence without denying the seriousness of the situation.

The Democrats have been accused of pointing fingers at Trump and his supposed mishandling of the seriousness of the virus. His supporters, according to at least one news commentator, believe the Democrats are trying to use this issue to turn voters against the president. They are probably right. This is an election year, after all, and his opponents want to win. You can bet if we had a Democratic president running for reelection right now, the Republicans would be attacking him/her in the same way.

Remember the Democratic Iowa caucus count debacle? The President was quick to find ways to criticize the Democrats for being chaotic and incompetent. “What you give to others, you give to yourself.”

George Friedman hit the nail on the head. We as a culture expect quick answers. To conquer our panic, we need to become aware of the emotions that are driving our fears. Ignorance of those emotions only increases our panic. The solution to this new crisis is to accept the fact that we poorly understand it. To cope, we have to be able to live with uncertainty. That is a difficult, but necessary task for all of us.


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