Today I am eating my words.
Exactly one month ago, in our daily chat group, I forced my uninformed opinion on my closest friends. I’ve known some of these guys since junior kindergarten, so this is a forum where verbal filters don’t exist.
I argued that the coronavirus outbreak is only a case of mainstream media fearmongering—a cheap way to boost newspaper sales and website clicks.
“First Ebola was supposed to kill us. Then SARS. Then Ebola again. MERS was in there, too, somewhere,” I wrote. “Experts will tell us this is the next Spanish Influenza that’s overdue, then the virus will die out and we’ll forget about it.”
I made myself a textbook example of the dangers of misinformation. Public health experts continue to urge leaders to take this one seriously. The question now is, should we worry?
To worry or not to worry?
That is the question. The bad Shakespeare pun will no doubt erase the last of my credibility on this topic, so let’s leave opinion behind to look at some facts.
At the time of writing, COVID-19 has infected more than 120,000 and killed 4,300 in 113 countries.
But the seasonal flu kills upwards of 650,000 people worldwide every year! you might argue. That’s true, and nobody panics about that staggering number.
If we’re choosing lethal dangers to worry about, shouldn’t heart disease be in the headlines? Every year it kills 650,000 people in the U.S. alone, with cancer taking another 600,000, and accidents coming in third place.
4,300 COVID-19 deaths, as tragic as they are, don’t seem to warrant this global media firestorm… do they?
How serious is it?
The 2009 H1N1 pandemic infected, at a high estimate, 21% of the world population, and even with a low fatality rate, killed between 150,000 to 575,000 people in its first year.
How does the coronavirus compare? Public health organizations are taking pains to tell us: There’s a lot we don’t know. Here’s what we do know from the World Health Organization:
- 80% of those who become infected make a full recovery without special treatment.
- 1 in 5 will get seriously ill and need medical treatment.
- This is (thankfully) not a disease that seems to affect our children.
- SARS was deadlier, but coronavirus is more infectious.
- The COVID-19 mortality rate is between 3-4%. By comparison, the seasonal flu rate is around 0.1%.
Is it time to panic?
I admit that I’ve moved my morning Starbucks writing sessions home—just in case. Five minutes of watching an elderly woman hack a lung into her Caramel Macchiato was more frightening than an hour of Joe Rogan interviewing an epidemiologist.
Completely ignoring the potential risks of this virus would be dangerous, and statements by uninformed politicians that the coming warm weather will quash the virus’ spread (it won’t) are harmful.
But let’s acknowledge that the opposite—panic and fear—might be the greatest risk in this unfolding situation.
Fear is the enemy.
What happens to us physically when we experience fear? Our adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol, which lowers your immune system. Now is not the time to open the gates to the invading hordes.
Fear (and misinformation) is driving otherwise rational friends of mine to buy pallets of surgical masks and hand sanitizer. Nobody told them that those masks are not designed to protect you from germs, but to protect open-heart surgery patients from doc’s accidental spittle.
If this outbreak does surge, those masks and bottles of Purell will be needed in hospitals and clinics. Let’s not exacerbate an emergency by cleaning out Costco.
In any crisis, of course, uninformed, fearful people will seek a scapegoat. This is why we’re seeing stories about violence and bigotry targeted at people who “look” Chinese. They’ve ignored the fact that this is not a Chinese disease—it infects all ethnicities without bias.
What’s this fear doing to the global economy? On March 9, U.S. stocks fell a full 7%, the worst drop since 2008’s Great Recession—another reminder that most investors let emotion, rather than rationality and a company’s value, drive their decisions. The United Nations estimate that the virus will cost the global economy $1 trillion to $2 trillion.
What’s the best way to worsen a crisis? Succumb to fear, then panic.
Yes, it’s natural to feel anxiety in any challenging situation, but you can choose to override your animal programming and cultivate fearlessness.
How to lead in a crisis.
The most powerful lesson from the Stoics is this: Focus on what you can control and ignore what you can’t.
What can we control? Our thoughts, words and actions. We have control over whether we become well informed, or let the parallel virus of media fearmongering drive us to irrational behavior.
Most everything else is not within your control. Unless you’re a health care worker, you cannot influence how far this pandemic will spread.
But no matter who you are, you have the opportunity to act as a leader.
Organizers of major events like the SXSW music festival and the London Book Fair have made the difficult but commendable decision to cancel these—despite huge financial losses.
Leadership means making terribly difficult decisions, sometimes.
“There are difficult decisions to be made right now, decisions that will impact more than bottom lines or travel plans,” writes leadership author and speaker, John Maxwell.
That is why he has canceled his Spring International Certification event.
And the airlines? With most people avoiding airports, flights are being slashed and so are profits. In response, Southwest Airlines’ CEO has taken a voluntary 10% pay cut. United’s CEO and president have both suspended their own salaries until June.
These might be symbolic gestures, but they are another way to show leadership: by sharing the burden of the crisis, and setting an example for others to follow.
What can I do?
Maybe you’re not an event organizer or CEO, but you can still take effective action. Here’s how you can show leadership, no matter who you are:
- First, educate yourself. Misinformation leads to the kind of fear and panic that is often worse than the cause of a crisis itself.
- Second, be a Stoic. Focus on what you can control; ignore the rest. Reject fear. Refuse to obsess over alarmist news stories about the virus. If you feel the need for daily coronavirus updates, get them from a reliable source.
- Third, follow the best advice from the World Health Organization: Wash your hands, stay 3 feet away from anyone with a cough, don’t touch your face, and cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. And if you have a dry cough or fever? Contact your doctor now.
Coronavirus is not the first, the worst or the last global crisis. Earlier generations have faced Spanish Influenza, two World Wars, and the constant threat of nuclear Armageddon.
What matters now is not whether we’re facing a crisis or even how bad it will become. What matters is how this generation will handle this emergency.
In every situation we have a choice: to let fear rob us of our power, or to work together as leaders for the good of the whole.
Let’s let our better natures win the day, and show this virus that it’s picked a fight with the wrong species.
Photo by Beautiful landscape/Shutterstock.com