The Sunday Edition

Fear, panic, preparedness and the new coronavirus — Michael's essay

“I would suggest that we are better armed in many ways because of the work of one man — an Ontario judge named Archie Campbell. After the SARS episode subsided, Justice Campbell investigated every element of the crisis and underlined the systemic failures of different health and government agencies, many of whom were not even talking to one another. Most of his recommendations were implemented.”
Passengers, and people waiting to pick them up, wear masks at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Sunday Jan. 26, 2019. The masks are a precaution against a coronavirus outbreak traced to Wuhan, China. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)
Listen4:12

Panic or near-panic are terrifying things.

They can almost choke the breath out of the lungs and paralyze the will to do anything. People in the torment of a panic are in the grip of an emotional and mental free fall.

Thankfully most of us have never suffered full-blown panic. Fear, certainly. And indeed a near-panic.

For example, I have sometimes felt a twinge of near-panic when the airplane hits severe turbulence.

After all, the whole idea of flying is ontologically absurd. There I am, sitting in a chair, surrounded by 200 other people sitting in chairs, six miles above the earth. Ridiculous.

While true panic is rare, fear is not. We are all fearful of things we know about (e.g. we're about to hit turbulence) and things we don't know. Undoubtedly, the unknown is more to be feared by our lizard brains than what we do know.

The whole matter of fear and potential panic have come up because of the reported cases of coronavirus infections in Canada.

Canadians are worried; and we should be. We worry about the possible infection by the coronavirus of our children, our parents, our friends.

Chinatowns and pharmacies across the country are running out of face masks, even though nobody really knows how effective they are.

Media are reporting daily on the strength of the virus, the number of actual and potential victims and the risks and realities of the virus.

Health officials have been open and candid about the actual danger of infection.

The unsurpassable health reporter André Picard addressed the question of fear this week, admonishing the media for, among other things, using the phrase "killer virus."

He added, "When you constantly update the number of cases and deaths, you wildly amplify incremental change. Of course, people will be scared."

Now that World Health Organization has declared a global emergency, it is more vital than ever for journalists and officials to deliver concise and accurate information.- Michael Enright

And that fear is increased with all the rumours, lies and nonsense pushed out by social media, high tech's gift to mass stupidity.

One site suggests the Chinese stole the coronavirus from a lab in Winnipeg.

Adding to the misinformation pouring out of social media, there is the ugly overlay and echo of racism, which has unnerved many Chinese-Canadians.

As André Picard pointed out in his column, Canada is much better prepared now than we were for the SARS epidemic of 2003, which killed 44 Canadians.

Researchers have identified the genetic makeup of the virus and are working on treatments and potential vaccines. And most importantly, various health departments inside and outside of the government are working closely together.

I would suggest that we are better armed in many ways because of the work of one man — an Ontario judge named Archie Campbell.

After the SARS episode subsided, Justice Campbell investigated every element of the crisis and underlined the systemic failures of different health and government agencies, many of which were not even talking to one another.

Most of his recommendations were implemented. In a sad irony, Judge Campbell died of a respiratory disease in 2007.

Now that the World Health Organization has declared a global emergency, it is more vital than ever for journalists and officials to deliver concise and accurate information.

It is always better to know than to not know in any situation. Knowledge moderates fear and staves off panic, which can be worse than the virus itself.

As novelist Stephen King has warned, "Panic is highly contagious, especially when nothing is known and everything is in flux."

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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