This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Here in northern Italy, where 11 towns were put on lockdown this week, the prevailing eerie feeling doesn’t just stem from the half-empty streets. We’re being force fed an overdose of coronavirus information, often with sensationalist and anxiety-inducing headlines.
There are constant updates on the rising infection numbers and the geographical spread of the new cases. There is the search, described by some media as a “hunt”, for patient zero. There are conspiracy theories about how individual governments are handling the virus, pitting country against country and even questioning the foundations of the EU. For those of us feeling anxious about the constant updates and developments, is the answer to log out and throw our phones out the window?
I asked psychiatrist Gino Pozzi, head of the anxiety disorder unit at the Gemelli Polyclinic in Rome. “When we have a lot of information that we don’t know how to process, because we’re not experts, it can lead to an increase in confusion and thus anxiety,” he said. “But isolating yourself [from the information] doesn’t help, because it’s important that you stay informed.”
But compulsively searching for information doesn’t help either. For many, it's not the virus that scares us but the stories we are being told about it. Not only via the clickbait-alarmism of certain media outlets, but also arguments between experts and speculation from politicians. All from the people who should be reassuring us.
Pozzi uses a specific term to describe the current situation: an infodemic. That is, an epidemic of “distorted and confusing information”, which affects “not only those already suffering from anxiety, but also anybody who lacks the adequate cultural tools to easily identify what is a trustworthy news story and what isn’t.” That’s why, he continues, “It’s important that you carefully select your sources, relying above all on [public] institutions," and that you “follow the simple rules of the experts”.
Irrational reactions are part and parcel of infectious diseases. “At the time of the plague,” Pozzi said, “big religious processions were organised to invoke God’s help against the disease.” Of course, getting crowding hoards of people together did not have the intended effect.
The fear is magnified by the fact that we can’t tell if somebody is infected by glance – leading to the use of placebos such as dust masks or unnecessary self-quarantine. The environment of fear has also fed into #CoronaRacism, an example of which being Australian parents refusing to let their kids be treated by Asian-Australian doctors. A 2004 paper on the 2003 SARS epidemic noted: "It has been widely reported that the real danger of SARS is not only the threat of the infection, but also the fear of it."
Although virologists and the data available both agree that the death rate is low – below two percent for people under the age of 60 – the speed of coronavirus' global onset can make us feel caught unaware. Pozzi says understanding how the brain computes time is key to understanding some of the more irrational reactions to corona’s onset. “The human mind always underestimates long term health risks, whilst we fear short-term risks a lot more,” he says. “Convincing a kid they should quit smoking by showing them what their lungs will look like when they are 50 or 60 years old, rarely works.”
Infectious disease anxiety, in other words, is an inevitable part of social life. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important to stem the flow of hysteria and deconstruct the reasons behind our fears. The same goes for having compassion for how fear might be affecting others. And when all else fails, just listen to the experts.
Below are the World Health Organisation's (WHO) guidelines for avoiding infection.
Wash your hands frequently
Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water.
Maintain social distancing
Maintain at least one metre (three feet) distance between yourself and anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
Practice respiratory hygiene
Make sure you, and the people around you, follow good respiratory hygiene. This means covering your mouth and nose with your bent elbow or tissue when you cough or sneeze. Then dispose of the used tissue immediately.
If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early
Stay home if you feel unwell. If you have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical attention and call in advance. Follow the directions of your local health authority.
Stay informed and follow advice given by your healthcare provider
Stay informed on the latest developments about COVID-19. Follow advice given by your healthcare provider, your national and local public health authority or your employer on how to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.