An epidemic of fear?
The current coronavirus outbreak that was recently declared as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) has stirred up high levels of panic, fear and concern globally. In some places like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the level of fear and panic is not proportional to the risk of importation of this disease. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that such fear exists, and action be taken to ensure proper risk communication to ease the minds of those concern.
What is driving the fear and panic?
1. Novel threats provoke anxiety:
Research has shown that different threats push different psychological buttons. Novel, exotic threats like the current novel coronavirus, Ebola or avian flu raise anxiety levels higher than more familiar threats do. With novel diseases, the science is ever developing and so there are high levels of uncertainty. Also, it is something new that we are dealing with, so the normal human reaction would be to panic since we do not exactly know what the final outcome will be.
2. Framing risk, reducing panic:
It is very important that the risk be clearly communicated. Health authorities play an active role in communicating with the public. Communication should be in simple language and in a manner that people of different literacy levels can understand. All channels of communication should be used to reach a wide section of the population. Timely, honest communication from a source an audience deems credible is essential to containing fear during an epidemic, but governments have the tough job of explaining risk and telling people how to act without also seeding alarm.
3. Handling social media
Whilst social media is a good way of communicating rapidly, it is generally a forum for the dissemination of “false news” or unverified information. With social media, it is important the we are empowered with the knowledge to sift through all of the information and to decide what information is credible.
Let us be guided by the science. At times it is difficult to connect the epidemiology upwards to the decision makers and downwards to the man on the ground. Let us use credible sources to get our information and only disseminate information that comes from a valid source such as the WHO, PAHO, CDC or local Ministries of Health. Let us not get too fearful yet and exhaust our resources, energy and time being hysteric, but to rationally assess the situation and focus on preparedness so that we can be thoroughly prepared to respond if needed.