Michael McGrady: Lessons on COVID-19 Hysteria and Public Health Panics

World War One made the breakout of the H1N1 influenza virus, or Spanish flu, which began in the winter of 1918. Due to the movement of troops and  the close quarters invited by trench warfare, this case of the influenza virus is considered one of the worst in human history.

The Spanish flu killed 40 to 50 million people, making it an unusually deadly outbreak across the world. Totally, the nature of the outbreak was so devastating that the moral panics about the H1N1 virus continue till this day. However, what’s troubling is the interlinked relationships between public health crises, economic activity, persistent states of hysteria, and a culture of fear.

For the COVID-19 virus impacting the world currently, the implications of mass panic are fervent. At the time of this piece, over 100,000 people worldwide are said to have the novel coronavirus with about 4,000 deaths, with cases heavily concentrated in countries like China, Italy, and Iran.

COVID-19 is a zoonotic respiratory illness that’s highly contagious among humans. The virus has captivated the world because of the virality and the pace of which it infects humans. World Health Organization officials adjusted the rate of death in infected cases at 3.4 percent. Influenza kills off a dismal percentage of cases each year. The prevalence of influenza is still astronomical, compared to numbers of reported cases of coronavirus. Data from the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC) states that from Oct. 1, 2019, to Feb. 15, 2020, there have been upward of 16,000 to 41,000 deaths. COVID-19, despite its rate of death, has only hit over 3,000 total deaths worldwide.

If we consider the impact of prevalence, you’d imagine that the collective public health response will go to mitigating the larger number of deaths. Unfortunately, the nature of incidence related to infectious disease typically mandates acts to mitigate viruses that have higher mortality and morbidity. It also isn’t surprising that the overall number of projected infection rate is quite high among humans and animals.

Barring the statistical context, the public’s response to the news of outbreaks open up scenarios of moral panic, which could cause greater harm. Stanley Cohen, a criminologist of great respect, noted that moral panics are exacerbated by the perception of a certain topic by the media and public institutions and the following reception of the actual general public.

 If messaging on the disease is negative or pessimistic, then the populace will share those sentiments. This isn’t to say that COVID-19 is nothing to be worried about. On the contrary; COVID-19 deserves the concerning eyes of public health as a means to fight a newly identified outbreak. Panics must be contained. People shouldn’t be racist toward Asian groups just because the virus originated from Wuhan, China. People shouldn’t assume that by merely eating Chinese food in a large city, they will get the virus. Such a mindset is harmful to communities of color, and to the overall public health response.

When H1N1 influenza returned with an outbreak in 2009, the fears associated with death from the outbreak flourished. That said, there is very little consideration for public health epidemics that have collectively claimed more lives then the COVID-19, currently. Recent years have witnessed higher than usual mortality rates every flu season. Besides that point, I do recognize the fears about the novel coronavirus. It’s a dynamic virus, and researchers uncover new information daily. Fear about COVID-19 isn’t unwarranted. However, recognition of context that informs perception is needed.

If we stick to the incidence of prevalence, preventable disease epidemics are killing off more people given extremely large population groups.  Sticking to my wheelhouse, consider tobacco and the breakout of the noncommunicable EVALI lung injury tied to the use of electronic vaporizers. 460,000 people die of smoking related disease that could’ve been prevented with the proper intervention. For this case, illegal THC vapes poorly manufactured or nicotine vapes that impacted nicotine sensitive individuals have all been linked to the EVALI injury. Not the actual behaviors of vaping and the inhalation of foreign compounds into the respiratory system. Communication related to this epidemic was openly sporadic and misleading.

This drove the moral panic associated with vaping as a behavior to the point of poor response. COVID-19, obviously, is different. However, a pure numbers game shows overwhelming proof that there are still worse diseases and public health crises currently in the world. Unfortunately, political opportunists and the media latch on to the news about a public health crisis to benefit from it financially and politically. When moral panic takes hold, more bad things happen. Yes, be concerned about the coronavirus. Just don’t be fearful to the point where it leads to unintended prejudice.