Great America

Why Are People Still Afraid of the Wuhan Virus?

If people are moved by fear of the virus, perhaps it is time for them to fear the consequences of shutdowns even more.

As Texas, Georgia, Oklahoma, and other states reopen their economies after shutting down for the last month and a half, polls show that the majority of Americans have serious misgivings about it. They believe the reopenings are happening too soon and would rather continue staying home even if this means more people lose their jobs and food runs short.

Even though “science” and “data” are regularly invoked to justify their reluctance, the facts suggest that continuing these shutdowns will do little to nothing to mitigate the effects of the Wuhan virus, which has proven far less deadly than initially believed. The curve has been flattened and the flood of infected overwhelming hospitals never came to pass.

Studies have shown that the virus has passed through parts of the country before testing was done and shutdowns were ordered, yet few people even noticed because the low mortality rate of the virus was similar to other maladies and affected the same vulnerable populations.

And these facts are not coming from greedy businessmen and anti-science crackpots; doctors and public health scholars have stated this—that is, when they aren’t being censored. Besides imposing a host of social ills upon a community, ongoing shelter-in-place orders will delay the only current method of overcoming the virus through herd immunity. Sweden has enacted this strategy all along—which the WHO now endorses, for whatever that’s worth—and has refrained from shutdowns, instead allowing the virus to circulate among people less likely to suffer from it and develop immunity while encouraging vulnerable populations to practice social distancing and self-quarantine.

Inevitably, this is what happens with every influenza and coronavirus, since vaccines, when they work, appear only years after an outbreak—and even then only work part of the time since the virus mutates over time. The only difference with Wuhan virus is that the media has given it far more attention than other viruses and has thus emotionalized the issue for many people.

Irrational but Understandable 

Many may not know much about the virus, but they definitely have strong feelings about it, mainly negative ones like fear, anger, and despair. Even with experts explaining that there is little to fear, most Americans still insist on hiding under the covers until the virus goes away.

By this point, this stance is mostly irrational, but it’s understandable. As with many other issues, the media (which includes the mainstream news outlets, internet news outlets, social media platforms, and most popular entertainment) have overwhelmed common sense and scientific evidence with narratives. For the past six weeks or so, Americans have been inundated with stories of the Wuhan virus killing thousands of people, baffling all experts, defying all treatments, and crowding intensive care units across the country. Each story supported the unshakeable feeling that the virus was unstoppable, that everyone is a potential carrier, and that a return to any kind of normalcy is instant death.

When narratives prevail over arguments and facts, emotion takes over and puts reason into doubt. It becomes much easier for a person to give into the hysteria and conform to the narrative. Moreover, he can feel informed, despite actually being misinformed, because of the sheer number of headlines supporting him.

The rise of digital and online media has only strengthened the power of the narrative. For all the possibilities that exist for better educating people, most media outlets now barrage people with endless images and videos, transforming sensibility into sensitivity. This means that instead of learning the details on topics such as climate change or healthcare, most people will react to heart-rending stories of koalas trapped in burning forests in Australia or a teary-eyed Jimmy Kimmel using his child as a prop for socialized healthcare. These things are sad and moving, but they say nothing about the issues under discussion.

Even patently false or misleading images, like the caged children in ICE detention facilities during Barack Obama’s presidency used to suggest President Trump was caging children or a demonstration at a gun show in Kentucky have determined most people’s positions on Trump’s immigration policy and the war in Syria.

The same thing has happened this past month as one outlet showed images of a hospital overrun with COVID-19 patients, claiming it to be New York when it was actually Italy. As usual, the truth eventually came out, but the stories had already done their work and settled the minds of many Americans on the matter.

Toward a Compelling Counter-Narrative

Because narratives generally succeed in making the population less informed and more emotional, they also foster dependence on experts.

While arguments require people to think through ideas, process logical sequences, and evaluate evidence, narratives require no such work. Arguments are empowering and demand intellectual self-reliance on the part of those who follow them, which is probably why most conservatives prefer them.

Narratives are easy and only demand sympathy from audiences, which is why they prevail among progressives. Consequently, many people in conservative circles have worked themselves into knots analyzing the minutia of virology and public health while their progressive counterparts “do their part” by loafing around at home and reporting neighbors who fail to comply with quarantines.

In order to return to some kind of normality, it falls then on those following the facts to confront the false narrative that has taken such a firm hold in so many people. The only way to do this is not through more arguments or even more protests, but through having the courage and wherewithal to create a counter-narrative.

This wouldn’t necessarily consist of positive feel-good stories. If people are moved by fear of the virus, it would be more feasible to have them fear the consequences of shutdowns even more. They should hear about the people who can’t have surgery or receive critical treatment because hospitals won’t do elective procedures. They should see images of the long lines at stores, the empty shelves, and people living on the streets because they can’t earn enough money for rent. They should see the footage of innocent people being harassed and bullied by police for going to the beach, or the playground, or to a friend’s house.

More importantly, these counter-narratives should be framed within the context of reality. Those who harbor doubts about the virus and the subsequent shutdowns may not have as many platforms and outlets as the media elite, but they do have facts. They can accompany each narrative of tragedy and outrage with the truth that the virus has been overhyped and that most people are at very low risk of dying from the Wuhan virus.

Over time, as cities and states reopen, the narrative of fear and doom can gradually transform into a narrative of hope and recovery. And, with any luck, people will come to stop relying so heavily on feelings and start using their reason once more. Only then will long-term solutions emerge.

Everyone has now experienced the Wuhan virus through and through. Now it’s time to learn from it.