The other side of panic

The other side of panic is indifference or naive reassurance in the face of what appears to be a serious threat or grave danger. This may often be the result of a lack of appreciation of the risk involved, or of a wish not to cause public alarm, or of something more selfish — like a desire to avoid the possible costs of acknowledging one’s responsibility.

The reasons can be varied and are as complex as the workings of the human mind. Thus, we can never really predict how individuals are going to react to any given situation. It is what complicates the study and management of epidemics.

In the age of the internet and social media, unfounded perceptions can, as we know, easily find their way into public communications as rumor. Rumor, in turn, can set off panic behavior of all kinds. Panic may sometimes be checked by the timely release of reliable information from credible sources.

But, how does one deal with the kind of indifference that equally produces risky behavior?

The novel coronavirus tagged as the 2019-nCoV, which broke out in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December last year, was first noticed by an observant young Chinese doctor working in the Houhu branch of the Wuhan central hospital.

Noticing a cluster of infections manifesting similar symptoms among patients in the hospital, Li Wenliang first reported his hunch about the mystery disease in an email to his fellow doctors. Rather than follow up on his lead, his superiors instead reported him to security officials. He was promptly picked up, interrogated, and reprimanded for “severe disruption of the social order.” He was later released on the understanding that he still could be held liable for spreading false information.

As fate would have it, Dr. Li himself caught the coronavirus from one of his patients. He was in his 30s and was not suffering from any pre-existing health condition. Yet he died a few weeks later. From his sickbed, he struggled to type out on his cell phone a full account of his encounter with the coronavirus. This got published in a youth daily, triggering a wave of sympathy for this fallen hero and defiant calls for “free speech” in social media.

There is good reason to believe that the tragic story of Dr. Li made the Chinese people think that their leaders were, again, not telling them the whole truth about this new virus. They rightly suspected that the scale of the contagion was far bigger than the authorities were letting the public know. Feeling threatened, residents began flooding Wuhan’s hospitals. The deluge occurred so suddenly that medical centers had to turn away people unless they had severe symptoms. As testing kits became available, following the genetic sequencing of the new virus, Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province experienced an exponential rise in confirmed infections.

Without the watchfulness and sense of responsibility of Dr. Li, symptoms like coughing, fever, and breathing difficulty occurring in winter would probably have continued to be dismissed as nothing more than manifestations of the seasonal flu or pneumonia. People would likely have self-medicated and not bother to go to a clinic or hospital.

But today, among residents of Wuhan and Hubei province, one can understand why even the mildest symptoms would warrant careful observation and testing for the 2019-nCoV. The more the test becomes available, the more cases of infection with the new coronavirus are confirmed. Which, of course, is not to say that this new coronavirus is nothing but a function of the test.

The virus is real, but it is so new that hardly anything is known about it. And therein lies its danger. As the disease expert Jeremy Farrar describes it in an interview with Der Spiegel, “To our immune system this virus is a new, unknown adversary that is very transmissible between humans. And it can cause everything from very mild to very severe symptoms. This combination of features makes this virus very hard to control.”

Now — imagine a situation where, despite exposure to the virus, people remain unaware of its existence or prevalence. Patients with respiratory symptoms would then likely be treated for influenza or pneumonia. Where the confirmatory test for the 2019-nCoV is not readily available, so that samples have to be sent to another country for analysis, chances are the test won’t be prescribed for individuals without a history of probable contact. Clearly, if you’re not looking for it, you won’t find it. This is how a new virus can spread so fast in such a short time.

My point is that once they realize they are being lied to, no amount of admonition by the World Health Organization for people not to panic or overreact can stop them from forming their own conclusions, or from complaining and demanding urgent action from those who make decisions in their name. On this issue, though they may sound unreasonable, we can’t blame the officials of Capas, Tarlac, for believing that using an athlete’s dormitory in the vicinity of their community as quarantine facility for the Filipinos to be evacuated from Wuhan could pose a danger to their residents.

As Niklas Luhmann, the noted sociologist of global society, warned: all catastrophes — epidemics, among them — “can only destroy communication.” As people try to make sense of these phenomena, they pave the way for the emergence of a new social order.