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Residents wear protective masks as they line up in the supermarket on February 12, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photo: Stringer/Getty Images.
Residents wear protective masks as they line up in the supermarket on February 12, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Photo: Stringer/Getty Images.

Calm in Times of Coronavirus: Why We Shouldn't Be Driven to Hysteria

Prevention is necessary, but as a society it is not in our interest to turn this epidemic into a zombie movie scenario.

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Empty streets. Latex gloves and masks in the subway. Closed schools and bars and grocery stores with the shutters down. No more toilet paper! You have to buy canned goods to survive for weeks without leaving home! The incessant counting of infected people around the world like a macabre lottery. And one question in the poisonous hive mind: When is it going to be my turn? 

The word "pandemic" fills our mouths. The coronavirus has not only arrived in our cities, it has also done so in our minds, causing a spiral of hysteria that grows and grows through our cell phones — in message chains and media headlines. It's become a trending topic. With the stock market plummeting and thousands of families see their bank account go to zero because nobody goes out, nobody buys. And then?

In a February article published in El País, before COVID-19's explosion, journalist Jorge Galindo analyzed the desire for drama that nests in our hearts.

"Our brain perceives risks better if it defines them in a dramatic way," he wrote. "We need a character (the illness) and a drastic change in the course of events (the daily routine) to put us on alert."

But the disease, as he recalls, "rarely behaves according to this Hollywood script," even if we try to put it in the story.

Galindo gave the example of the 2009 swine flu epidemic in Mexico. From one week to the next, everyone was repeating the same acronym: H1N1, creating a global alarm. 

However, the development of swine flue was much more gradual than COVID-19 and although it was very dangerous, especially for the youngest, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, H1N1 killed the same number of people as a seasonal flu would. 

Uncertainty and Social Networks

This is not to diminish the gravity of the situation, but to shed light on a certain aspect of the proliferation of the coronavirus that is going unnoticed: the sense of global alarm that is creating unnecessary anxiety and stress, and doesn't add up to much.

In the capital of Spain, Madrid, one of the cities that has become ground zero for the contagion, the coordinator of the group of Emergencies and Emergencies of the College of Psychologists, Elena Herráez called for calm:

"There is an episode of collective hysteria that is leading some people to take disproportionate measures," she told the media. The reason? The uncertainty.

"We are in a totally new situation, the closest thing we remember is in the post-war (Spanish) period. We don't know what's going to happen and it's a very humane reaction to try to protect ourselves," she added.

"Our brain perceives risks better if it defines them in a dramatic way."

COVID-19 is the first global epidemic of its kind in the age of social networks. In previous ones - Ebola, SARS, influenza A - information (and misinformation) did not travel as fast. 

"Citizens are subjected to a constant bombardment where it is very difficult to distinguish what is true from what is false," said the president of the Spanish Society of Public Health and Health Administration.

We need mental hygiene

Wash your hands very often, avoid crowds, do not leave the house if you notice symptoms such as fever, cough or difficulty breathing. They're small steps and not foolproof, but something.  

But we cannot allow anxiety and stress to colonize our lives and end up generating, Herráez warns, "irritability and discomfort."

"We all need a routine and when there are measures such as those being applied that break it, they leave us in a situation of continuous alert and that ends up generating friction at an interpersonal level," she says.

"The citizenry is subjected to constant bombardment where it is very difficult to distinguish the true from the false."

Here we give you three simple recommendations for "mental hygiene" so the fear of the coronavirus is not more lethal than the virus itself:

1. Question the information you are getting from the media. 

Rather, go to scientific publications and avoid images and headlines that sound like Hollywood plots. Remember that we also live in the age of 'fake news'.

2. Be realistic when informing other family members or friends.

Don't help to spread the hysteria epidemic by exaggerating or fueling unconfirmed information. Fact check before sharing anything and understand it is an evolving situation, so information changes rapidly.

3. Control the thoughts that make you feel uneasy.

Don't spend all your time in a loop thinking about the disease and accept and share your concerns with others. Seek support in your community.
However, remember one thing: On Thursday, March 12,  the Chinese National Health Commission declared itself over the peak of the COVID-19 epidemic, which infected 80,000 people since last December. The country is now slowly returning to normal. 

Let us be patient, responsible and make it easier for the health authorities to work. 

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