Coronavirus or Fear: What’s Worse?

coronavirus fear

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?

SARS shocked the world in 2002 because it had a fatality rate of 10% and we had no vaccine. It killed 774.

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

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Michael Pietrzak is a mindset and habits coach to entrepreneurs. He founded So You Want to Write? Inc., which helps writers improve and get published. Michael is passionate about weightlifting, great books and playing guitar.

20 Comments

  1. Avatar Gilbert Nicholas Mitchell on March 12, 2020 at 2:28 am

    Thank for putting this out Michael.
    As a stress coach I’ve been working in health care for several years now in (and in the process starting my own company) Sweden.
    This strain of virus is more aggressive than previous corona strains but so is the stoking of the panic by the masses that are getting all their news second hand form sources that are also vying for viewers.

    As you pointed out, so far this virus doesn’t seem to give a damn about the kids which should be something that EVERY PARENT who can’t afford more child sick days very thankful about.
    Also even with those that have sadly passed away, underlying underlying other diseases or symptoms are to blame. Heart problems, Diabetes, COL (Chronic Obstructive Lung Syndrome) to name but a few.

    As you also pointed out it doesn’t help that people are watching the news 24/7 with the latest repeated update on the situation of the apocalypse. And I have a saying that goes,
    “More people will get hurt in the stampede than the actual fire itself”

    The stress and fear that so many will go through now will make them more susceptible to the virus and anyone that gets sick may even make themselves worse when in fact they just have the seasonal flu. The act of keeping ourselves on unnaturally high alert for to long a period of time has it’s own negative effects on the immune system.

    I hope more people read your post just so they can take a deep breath, as that is one of the things that they can control. Posts like yours will hopefully remind people to walk from the fire so they don’t get hurt in the stampede.

    • Avatar Michael Pietrzak on March 14, 2020 at 8:49 am

      Gilbert, you’ve captured the problem perfectly. The stampede is almost always worse than the fire.

  2. Avatar Jagoda on March 12, 2020 at 3:41 am

    your number may be ok but you’re missing sth these killed 4,300 in 113 countries are in what time frame like 3 weeks or so right? & the rest ?

    • Avatar Michael Pietrzak on March 14, 2020 at 8:53 am

      January 11th, 2020 was the first reported death from this virus. So the timeframe we’re talking about here is approximately 2 months.

  3. Avatar John on March 12, 2020 at 6:58 am

    Good stuff. Just one thought glitch you have is the comparison to the seasonal flu. So, how wide spread is the seasonal flu? You see if we would have a spread of a seasonal flu and mortality rate of Corona – there you have it…

    • Avatar Michael Pietrak on March 14, 2020 at 8:55 am

      My intention in comparing this to the flu is only to discount the argument that we shouldn’t worry about this. I.e. some (including myself) have argued that 4,000+ deaths is miniscule compared to the flu’s 600k+. But it’s a false comparison given the much higher mortality rate of this coronavirus.

  4. Avatar Keith on March 12, 2020 at 12:54 pm

    Good article, Michael. Thank you. One quick fact to note is that Covid-19, SARS, and MERS are all strains of coronavirus. Your article is thought-provoking and timely.

    • Avatar Michael Pietrzak on March 14, 2020 at 8:58 am

      Thanks Keith, you’re right, the coronavirus family is a large one. One small and picky point of clarification: COVID-19 is not the virus, it’s the disease caused by the virus. The virus we’re all concerned about here is technically called SARS-CoV-2. By analogy: HIV = virus, AIDS = the disease it can cause (to borrow phrasing from Tim Ferriss.)

  5. Avatar Jerry Shea on March 13, 2020 at 6:18 am

    A friend of mine has reached out to me and asked me to tell you what is going on here in Italy. She said that many Americans are angry and feeling inconvenienced because events, schools, etc. are being cancelled due to Covid-19. Well…let’s talk inconvenience. My entire country is under lock down. As of today ALL businesses, unless a grocery store, medical facility or pharmacy, are CLOSED indefinitely. ALL. We are not to leave our homes unless we are going to work at one of these places, to shop for food or medicine, or in the event of an emergency. All weddings, baptisms and funerals are cancelled. So I’m sorry if you can’t go to the Big 10 Tournament, really a bummer.

    Our hospitals here are getting so overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients they might be forced to determine which Covid-19 patients have the better chance of survival and will thus get an available bed or lifesaving measures. I’m sorry you are having difficulties finding toilet paper on shelves.

    I know it is good to keep your spirits up, but being stupid is just wrong and quite frankly so are the horrible Facebook comments. Yes, thousands die each year from the flu which has a .01% mortality rate. Covid-19 is in the infant stage worldwide and has between 2 – 4% (and in certain hotspots over 15%) mortality rates. If you have 100,000 people with the flu…at .01% then 10 people will die. If you have 100,000 people with Covid-19…at 2.5% then 2,500 people will die. I’m sorry you didn’t pay attention in math class.

    The United States has only tested 8,554 people. That is 26 tests per million population (which is roughly the population of Ramsey and Dakota counties combined). So stating that you only have 1,355 confirmed cases and 55 deaths should not be comforting to you.

    At some point in the past three weeks Italy only had a thousand or so confirmed cases as well. Today we are at 12,462 confirmed cases and 827 deaths and that is WITH stringent guidelines. We have tested 60,761 people. That is just over 1,000 per million population. People talk about IF…well, to you I say good luck, because it is when…and it is now.

    What really makes me sad is that the United States government is in the position to learn from what the rest of the world is going through and yet it took a wait and see attitude far too long. That should enrage you as a taxpaying citizen. They would be well ahead of the curve if they would just listen and get off the “We’re the most wealthy and powerful country in the world” because quite frankly Covid-19 doesn’t care. I recall the speech your president made just over a week ago when he named the VP in charge of this. He said that the USA only had 15 cases and one was really, really sick but “we have this under control”. 15 a week ago and 1,355 today. People…it is time to pay attention…not panic, pay attention. Avoid crowds, wash your hands, carry hand sanitizer, quit pouting about being inconvenienced, stop hoarding toilet paper, and for God’s sake…take this seriously!

    • Avatar Michael Pietrzak on March 14, 2020 at 9:07 am

      Hi Jerry, I can hear your frustration and I can only imagine how difficult the situation is in Italy. Many of us are watching it closely and are feeling very helpless and wish we could do something to help. We are all Italians right now, as they say.

      I would encourage you to read the article more carefully. Nowhere was mention made of toilet paper or the Big Tournament. As for your math lesson, again, read the article carefully. The statistics put forward about the flu were not intended to minimize the seriousness of this pandemic, but the opposite: to show that this is a challenge of a much bigger magnitude than the seasonal flu.

      I’m not sure which Facebook comments you are referring to – they do not appear here. However, I will ask you to consider whether your comments above are not similarly negative.

      You are absolutely right that not only the USA but the entire world needs to take this challenge seriously and act immediately, and that comments made by uninformed politicians that “this will be fine” are certainly not helpful.

      We wish you luck and good health.

  6. Avatar Michelle Smith on March 13, 2020 at 1:28 pm

    I live in Italy (Rome) and it is horrifying to see how the UK and US ‘leaders’ are playing the situation down…basically for economical reasons (IMO). We haven’t even reached the peak yet. Take the risk very seriously. We are all staying at home. We are losing work and money, but with good health we can make a go of it. Don’t let your leaders “cull” the population. Do not trust them…after all, If they get it they have the money for top quality treatment. I am lucky..in Italy top quality treatment is free.

  7. Avatar Dennis Zukiwsky on March 13, 2020 at 1:43 pm

    Great article that reminds that that rare commodity called common sense prevails once again.

  8. Avatar vinh ho on March 13, 2020 at 2:11 pm

    Thank you Very much for putting your compassionate heart and encouraging thought into this positive and problem-solving writing. Your contribution and sharing is definitly and greatly appreciated.

  9. Avatar W. P. Arcement on March 13, 2020 at 2:55 pm

    This is primarily a “media” crisis, manufactured to place fear top of mind of every American. I’m 80 and not fearful of this virus. I’m sensible and as sanitary as I’m able to be. I just went to pick up paper towels, not because we are in fear, only because we didn’t have one roll in the house. I didn’t buy every pack I could. I bought the quantity we normally buy any day of the week when we are out of this item. But the Winn Dixie where I shop looked like the panic button was pushed. Not one basket available. Lines of people with baskets full. Empty shelves where toilet paper normally is found, not as bad in the paper towel area. I’ve not seen this level of “panic” when the strongest of strong hurricanes are coming our way. Political opportunist are taking over the airwaves and spreading their hate for everything Trump and embedding panic into the minds of uninformed citizens. It’s sickening to see this manipulation occur. Hey, what are you going to do about the FLU than kills hundreds of thousands across the globe? Let’s get things in perspective and take sensible precautions. God runs the universe, not political pimps and the crooked, panic-setting media.

    • Avatar Michael Pietrzak on March 14, 2020 at 9:13 am

      Thank you W.P. I agree with you that the media has done much to fan the flames of this panic. I did my weekly grocery shop yesterday and I’ve never seen the aisles so full and the shelves so empty. Humans seem to have an innate, extreme fear of sickness – but with good reason. Viruses have killed far more than hurricanes or terrorism or natural disasters. My hope is that we, as a global community, can walk the fine line of taking this pandemic very seriously (because it is serious!) but also not making it worse by indulging in fear, panic, hoarding, and unkindness to others. This is NOT primarily a political issue although we should give some thought to why certain politicians do appear to be downplaying the challenge as we approach the next US election.

  10. Avatar Tony Ovienloba on March 13, 2020 at 4:30 pm

    Great write up. Fear kills more than any virus. But like the old sages would say “this too shall come to pass “

  11. Avatar Elisabeth Werner on March 14, 2020 at 3:59 am

    Thank you thank you thank you for this information. Be a good and responsible leader to your self and show other to ACT like you do. Give more from your heart.
    Create a lovely day.
    Warmly Kind Regards
    Elisabeth

  12. Avatar Ārija on March 14, 2020 at 8:35 am

    Beautifully put Micheal.

  13. Avatar Faimon on March 15, 2020 at 11:53 am

    Awesome article thank you so much for supporting us during this fearful situation.

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