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Why Does Coronavirus Have Us so Panicked?

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Things are scary out there. The Dow Jones is plunging. The Olympics may be canceled. Hollywood is bracing for a bad time at the box office. And it’s all due to one thing: Coronavirus, aka COVID-19.

This disease has everyone scared. Although the virus has not been spreading in the US yet (there are cases from the passengers returned from the cruise ship Diamond Princess and one man in serious condition in California, who caught the virus from an unknown source), officials say it’s just a matter of time. We have literally the worst people in charge now after Donald Trump dismantled the organizations and for the people who were previously in charge of pandemic response. But yay Mike Pence. (Oh God). And recently, a whistleblower report said that workers interacted with the Diamond Princess passengers without proper protective equipment and protocols, causing further alarm.

But why is this epidemic so scary compared to others that have come before, like swine flu or avian flu or SARS? There are many factors as to why this pandemic is extra terrifying to people, but these factors have also existed before. This virus is dangerous, that’s true, but why are we panicking so hard?

For one, there’s social media, or, to be more specific, a social media landscape already full of fear, misinformation, and panic. It’s nearly impossible to get on Twitter or Facebook without seeing warnings and panic about coronavirus, so it all seems so immediate. (Don’t ask me about TikTok, I am old). Social media affects how many of us see the world and heightened sense of panic is just par for the course on there nowadays. As our Kaila Hale-Stern found, buying a face mask in New York City or online is next to impossible, a run on medical equipment that is unfortunately bound to affect medical personnel and vulnerable populations. But for many of us laypeople watching, fear and lack of understanding about the efficacy of masks have caused price-gouging and hoarding behavior.

Another factor is of course that we here in the US aren’t prepared, or at least our leadership isn’t. The Trump administration, like the cartoon villains they are, has seriously weakened the CDC and our ability to respond to disasters and pandemics, and they’ve also contributed to a national climate where everyone is scared all the time. That’s two strikes against us already.

One element that’s also confusing, and thus scary, is that the Coronavirus is just different enough from the typical flu or super flu that it is legitimately different and dangerous enough that authorities want to be extra cautious.

Coronavirus is not the flu. There are actually many strains of coronavirus, which according to Donald G. McNeil on The Daily podcast from the New York Times, most of us have had—we just call it the common cold. This version of coronavirus, however, COVID-19, is particularly transmissible and dangerous. It infects deep in the lungs and especially for people who have already compromised or weak respiratory systems, it is dangerous.

We’ve tried for hundreds of years to “cure” the common cold and been unsuccessful, so the threat of a super cold that has a 1 – 2% death rate is extremely worrisome. That death rate is far higher than the death rate for the flu (about 0.01%) or even swine flu (0.01%). This rate may decrease as more cases are evaluated and treated, but it’s still startlingly close to the rate of mortality for the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic.

That high death rate is what’s got people really scared. What’s causing the real disruption though is not sick people, but how the threat of the virus is just shutting entire areas down. It’s not that places like Tokyo Disneyland are closing because loads of people are sick, but because authorities want to pause the spread of the virus.

In the face of a deadly threat, it may be better to be cautious, and hopefully, these measures and reactions to the COVID-19 outbreaks will slow the spread as doctors develop better treatments and work on a vaccine (which could take a year). How America will respond to any outbreak if or when it reaches our shores remains to be seen.

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.