Learning Points: Why does panic spread quicker than any virus?

The Grim Reaper has such an impressive array of tools in his deadly arsenal and, by golly, is he ready to launch them at any given moment, says Richard Hogan.

Learning Points: Why does panic spread quicker than any virus?

IT starts with a sudden and terrible feeling. Lungs gasp for air; the rattle of your chest against your ribs fills your mind with dread, says Richard Hogan.

Your eyes are wild; terror grips your body. No matter how diligently you have been ‘self-isolating’, nothing has worked and the pathological ringing of your hands with anti-bacterial gel has done nothing to save you from the grip of this new catastrophe.

The name of this terrible disease is not COVID 19 or coronavirus, but, rather, panic. And we have embraced it fully.

We have survived many microscopic invaders: Sars, bird flu, and swine flu, to mention a few. The Grim Reaper has such an impressive array of tools in his deadly arsenal and, by golly, is he ready to launch them at any given moment.

Like flies to wanton boys, these super germs kill us for their sport. Influenza is one of his most successful creations; this particular, nasty little bug wreaks havoc all over the globe. It even has its own season and we are so unafraid of it that we refer to it simply as ‘flu’, an endearing term bred by the contempt of familiarity.

However, in this last flu season, it racked up some impressive stats.

The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has estimated (based on weekly influenza surveillance data) that at least 12,000 people died from ‘flu’ in the USA alone between October 1st, 2019 and February 1st, 2020, and they anticipate the number of deaths to rise as high as 30,000.

Annually, this little mite is estimated to kill 290,000 to 690,00 per year. Yet, no national panic, no national broadcasts, no sudden purchasing of Brennan’s bread.

Why is that? Because we know it. Like old wallpaper, we rarely get excited about what we know. So, COVID 19 is new. It is the bogeyman in the shadows; it spreads fear because we are terrified of the unknown, but we are also excited by it.

Our brains are hardwired to catastrophise events, so that we feel a heightened sense of alarm.

The amygdala has been in an exhaustive state ever since it first heard about bats, and open markets and killer diseases. And boy does it need a rest.

We love disaster movies, like 28 Days Later or World War Z, because they allow the amygdala to play out worldwide destruction in the safety of the movie house, free from the possibility of death.

Well, unless someone is a metre from you, coughing and spluttering and currently infected with COVID 19.

Then, you’re doomed, or maybe not. Depending on your age and history of underlining medical conditions, you may just develop flu-like symptoms and survive.

How boring.

Covid-19 will never get a movie deal with that kind of prognosis. I know I sound flippant here. But we all need a little bit of levity.

Woody Allen has a formula for comedy: ‘tragedy plus time.’ And maybe my timing is off here, because we are still in the grip of this thing.

But we all need to really think about how we manage our fears around this virus. And how we interpret the genesis of it in the first place.

There is a certain sense of xenophobia around this virus. It’s new, it’s relatively unknown, there is no cure just yet.

But we will figure it out.

What must our children be making of all this? It has been such an uncertain time for them. All the talk of global destruction, with climate change, Brexit, and now this COVID 19 germ, which has arrived to kill us all.

Honestly, they must be as exhausted as the adult amygdala.

But it is important that we talk to them in a sensible way about everything that is going on.

We are not at the point of annihilation. We are in the grip of a global panic attack.

It’s time to calm down, take a breath, and remember that a little bit of common sense around hygiene and social interaction will go along way to defeating this particular bug.

It is important that we show our children how to manage anxiety. If we become overwhelmed and start preparing for doomsday, we are demonstrating or inability to mange our own fears.

We need to be sensible here. Of course, this is a serious issue and I’m making light of it, but the reporting of it needs to be measured and calm.

The Spanish flu didn’t wipe us off the face of the planet: we survived it.

We will survive this particular strain of virus.

But how we manage ourselves as we navigate this uncertainty will illustrate for our children the true meaning of resilience.

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