Two epidemiologists quoted in the Washington Post recently offered as their first words of advice about responding to the COVID-19 epidemic - “don’t panic.”
Pandemics and epidemics such as the current threat of COVID-19 are not unique in mankind’s short history. They are, unfortunately, a natural part of our existence and should be recognized as such.
While it is wise to be vigilant and thus prepared for such natural calamities it is also incumbent upon the world’s population to not let such events consume all of our attention and time to the point that we, the populous, stand stock still. Panic in the face of pandemics only heightens the residual impacts of the disease.
As travel increases due to a robust transportation system so do the opportunities for epidemics, which can, as with COVID-19, become pandemic and thus the need for international attention. In the case of the novel coronavirus or COVID-19, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) are working feverishly, pardon the pun, to develop proper treatment protocols and vaccines.
It is easy to see how this disease has some comparatives to the misnamed Spanish Flu of 1918. Historians have traced the start to Chinese laborers imported to European and British factories to fill positions vacated by soldiers fighting on the front during World War I. As the flu virus spread across Europe, Spain openly acknowledged the virus since it was a neutral in the war and had no fear of creating a public relations problem as did the other warring communities. Thus the virus was given the name Spanish Flu.
Following the war returning doughboys brought the virus back to their homes and the virus spread. Because of public relations concerns and the desire to put the war out of the public mind, government pressured the press to not report on the virus until it was too late
We’ve learned our lesson and governments worldwide, and of course in our own country, are focused on transparency. But with this transparency comes the requirement that we the public respond intelligently. By hyping the disease and its impacts we do nothing but spread the very social virus -panic- that the epidemiologist advised against.
So far we are experiencing what can best be described as a measured and cautious approach to this unusual disease. What is a concern is the ability for policy makers and the media to expand the threat and the possible ramifications way out of proportion. This could have severe residual impacts that go well beyond health issues.
A common sense approach is needed. Shutting down operations, particularly for needed day-to-day businesses, does nothing to stem the impacts of the virus. It only pushes the public to extra efforts that paradoxically may enhance further spread of the disease. We’re seeing a focus on hand washing and self-quarantine as a strong defense to ameliorate if not stop spread of the virus. Albeit good advice, it is sad that common sense decisions such as these are not followed on a regular basis.
We will be well advised to take the epidemiologists’ first response seriously- “don’t panic” and the second advice they offered - to be vigilant in personal hygiene, not just for today but for the future. Our health starts with a personal decision, not a government dictate, as does our response in the face of crises. We cannot let the hype dictate our lives. We will make it through and will come out better for the challenge.