Fright, panic and despair are the normal human responses when up against the fear of an epidemic. It is probable that we are facing the first pandemic in the era of modern communications – in previous centuries, information about epidemics arrived when they were knocking at our door. Today the flow of information is faster than the spread of the virus.
This factor increases what we psychiatrists call anticipatory fear. Every day we absorb the impact of the information as to how the infection affects the population of other countries as it advances on ours, giving us sufficient time to ask ourselves what we should do to be prepared.
On social networks this information is almost instantaneous and highly visual. We can feel part of the sa me huma nit y, laughing at or taking fright over the experiences filmed, photographed and narrated by ordinary people from distant latitudes, people of another language and another culture. Seeing what they do fills us with uncertainty and shapes our conduct. I note, for example, that in Australia, all the toilet-paper has disappeared from supermarket shelves – should I, in Argentina, be doing the same?
A study has revealed Argentine reactions to the coronavirus. According to their characters, some think evasively – “This is not going to happen to me” or “This is just an exaggerated sales campaign on the part of the pharmaceuticals industry” – and therefore do not follow any of the preventive recommendations. Others imagine people all around them dying from respiratory collapse and prepare themselves for the most extreme quarantine.
We human beings are social creatures and we eye each other in search of signals for what is safe and what is dangerous. If I see a shelf of canned food being emptied, whether it makes sense or not, the idea occurs to me: “They’re taking precautions, I should too!” This accelerates the process, leading to a snowball effect of hoarding certain goods perceived as protective or necessary in special situations. The people hoarding supplies are thinking of themselves and their family – and what is needed in order to “be prepared.”
All this is due to a wave of anticipatory anxiety without evaluating the consequences for society of accumulating certain goods – everyone wants to be prepared in some way and regain their illusion of controlling a situation which makes them feel impotent, adrift and at risk.
In general people feel that if a peril is announced, the measures we must take should be proportional to its scale. Faced with the fear of sickness and death, mere hygienic measures seem to fall short – just a bit more than what we do every day. “Didn’t they wash their hands before in the countries where the epidemic has progressed?”
As for prevention of the epidemic, medical science offers all it can today: hygiene and social isolation. A century ago we might have received the same advice so the illusion of an omnipotent science freeing us from all epidemics fades. There is still no specific vaccine nor antiviral drug or treatment.
And so, we are invaded by terror of the unknown and the need to retake control of our lives by doing something. But what? We pass from not knowing what to do, to turning into avid consumers of every kind of information, whether veracious or not, thus enhancing the sensation that if we’re not doing anything more, we will be being negligent and not protecting ourselves or our families correctly. Since there are no scientific answers making us feel more protected against the uncertainty, we cling to anything which seems to us proportional to the fear we feel.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that the epidemic is advancing more slowly in the countries which adhere more rigorously to isolation techniques, thus giving their health systems more time to attend to the sick. And that is a point requiring a special effort from everybody.
Isolation is an extraordinarily costly measure in both economic terms and those of personal freedom but it could make a notable difference and will only work if we are all responsible. Following the hygiene tips and cutting back on social contacts is solidarity in action because when one person does not follow the recommended measures, they harm many others.
by DR. SERGIO GROSMAN, for Perfil