Coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been declared a global health emergency by the World Health Organization (WHO). Schools are being shut down, travel bans are being enforced, and people are stockpiling toilet paper and face masks in preparation for the pandemic.
This panic seems warranted given the media’s news coverage. Headlines use language like “brace for infection”, “cancel everything”, “risk for disaster”, and “dangerous”. These words instill fear into the hearts of readers.
Media coverage of COVID-19 has created a perfect scenario for a huge social experiment. In this anxious time, we can explore the fear of the unknown on a global scale. The media has used words that amplify the fear of the unknown, and this could be the driving force behind exploding sales in toilet paper, hand sanitizer, bottled water, and other essentials. During this strange social experiment-type situation, we need to ask whether our fear is due to the danger of the virus or the fear of the unknown perpetuated by the media.
Fear of the unknown
Anything new can be scary just because its implications are unknown. If you see a snake on your doorstep, you’d be afraid because you might be bitten, and you might die from the bite. You’d be fearful about the outcome, maybe just because it’s unknown.
The great thing about psychology is that we can put ideas like “fear of the unknown” to the test. We can see how afraid people are of things vs. how likely those things are to actually happen. Psychologist Nicholas Carleton has posited that fear of the unknown is possibly the fundamental fear (2016).
Psychologists Kagan and Snidman (2004) explored fear in infants. They found that 4-month old infants did not appear to be afraid of snakes, perhaps because the fear response was not yet learned. This suggests that we are not inherently afraid of snakes. Kagan and Snidman (2004) did find, however, that 6-month old infants appeared to be afraid of unknown stimuli. This shows that unknown stimuli may be scary just because they’re unknown— not because they’re inherently scary.
Snakes vs. car crashes
Let’s examine a common fear: snakes. The WHO estimates that between 81,410 and 137,880 people die from snake bites per year globally. According to the WHO, about 20% of the more than 3,000 species of snakes are venomous. And 200+ are considered medically important. Moreover, while this number is ultimately unknown, it’s estimated that 5.4 million people per year are bitten by snakes. That means that of the ~5.4 million people bitten by snakes, only about 3% of people actually die from them.
Another common fear is being hit by a drunk driver. The CDC estimates that 1.35 million deaths result in motor vehicle accidents around the world. So, an estimated 90% more deaths occur from motor vehicle crashes compared to snake bites.
Chapman University conducted a study in 2017 on people’s fears. Researchers asked questions about how afraid they were of certain stimuli. Results showed that 35.5% said they were afraid of being hit by a drunk driver. 23.6% said they were afraid of reptiles (including snakes).
There is no right or wrong fear, and drunk-driving only accounts for only a subset of car crashes. But there is a huge discrepancy between fear and actual incidence relating to car crashes and snakes. More people reported fear of being hit by a drunk driver compared to those who reported fear of reptiles, which makes sense given that more people die from car crashes compared to snakebites. But if we are 90% more likely to die in a car crash compared to a snake bite, why are we only about 12% more afraid of being hit by a drunk driver?
Snakes are like the coronavirus: weird
Kagan and Snidman (2009) suggest that people are afraid of what they don’t know precisely because it is unfamiliar, and snakes are relatively unfamiliar to people. Snakes have scaly skin that is much different than humans’ or their furry pets’. They have no arms or legs, so they can’t walk; they slither. And if that’s not weird enough, they stick out their forked tongues and hiss while they do it. So, maybe we’re afraid of snakes not because they are just so dangerous; maybe we’re just afraid of them because they’re weird.
Snakes are strange like coronavirus is strange. In the abbreviation 2019-nCoV, the n is short for “novel”. Anything novel is fraught with uncertainty. In accordance with Carleton’s theory (2016), we see a lot of fear associated with this new, unknown coronavirus. So how much of our fear is due to our uncertainty?
According to the WHO, there have been 125,048 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection and 4,613 reported deaths as of March 12, 2020. That’s about a 3% fatality rate … the same fatality rate of snakebites. And that rate only includes confirmed cases; there is likely a higher number of COVID-19 cases that have not been confirmed, which would lower the fatality rate.
How being overly cautious can be a bad thing
I haven’t given any polls to assess fear of snakes vs. coronavirus, but I’d be willing to bet that people are much more afraid of coronavirus than they are of snakes right now, despite the similar fatality rate. It’s not a perfect comparison, because snake bites aren’t contagious like COVID-19, but the fatality rate remains approximately the same.
I’m not saying snakes aren’t dangerous. I’m not saying coronavirus isn’t dangerous. I’m saying that people’s fear of snakes demonstrates the principle we are seeing right now in our response to coronavirus. If we are disproportionately fearful of snakes because they are weird and unfamiliar, we may also be overly afraid of coronavirus because it is novel and the outcomes are uncertain. At the time this article is written, we are arguably more familiar with snakes than we are with COVID-19, so it stands to reason we’re more afraid of coronavirus than we are of snakes.
However, being too fearful of something is unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Research suggests that stress can impair the immune response (Reiche, Nunes, & Morimoto, 2004). An impaired immune response is not what you want if you’re stressed about a viral infection. Paranoid people rushing to buy their own personal protective equipment (PPE) has left a shortage of masks for healthcare workers who work directly with people infected with COVID-19. I’m no doctor, but I would think that it’s extremely important for healthcare workers to stay healthy so they don’t spread the virus to immunocompromised patients.
The media advertises COVID-19 in a way that scares people. Walmart, Amazon, and Target’s online sales of toilet paper are exploding, maybe as a result of the media’s anxiety-provoking messaging that implies people need to quarantine themselves. And if that’s not enough, articles on the dwindling toilet paper supplies further add to our anxiety with lines like “we don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” This is a great example of how uncertainty perpetuates the cycle of fear.
I’m not suggesting that Fox or CNN is in cahoots with companies that sell toilet paper. I am suggesting that the media’s use of fear-based messaging has a huge impact on consumer behavior. Fear-based messaging gets the clicks, the views, the social media shares. But can get paranoid people buying face masks unnecessarily, leaving healthcare providers with limited supply. And that could be more dangerous for everyone.
Newswriters are just people like you and me, subject to the same fears of the unknown. So do your own research. Fact-check everything you can (including this article) during this giant “social experiment”.
What have you heard about the coronavirus? Leave your comments below!
Kagan, J., & Snidman, N. (2009). The Long Shadow of Temperament. Harvard University Press.
Reiche, E. M., Nunes, S. O., & Morimoto, H. K. (2004). Stress, depression, the immune system, and cancer. The Lancet Oncology, 5, 617-625.