The Connection Between the Coronavirus and Moral Panic
Epidemic risk management is by itself a highly complex task, where sets of measures need to be put in place and coordinated at local, national and international levels in order to minimize health and economic consequences. This complex and monumental task does not benefit from panic or extreme worry among citizens; this should be controlled and reduced as much as possible. Even Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte first asked the public to “stop the panic”, then to act responsibly, when scenes of hundreds fleeing Milan surfaced – living proof that there is more to be understood and more that can be done in managing health (and many other) shocks.
The coronavirus crisis has forced us to look at our behaviour in a way that we’re not used to. We are being asked to act in the collective good rather than our individual preservation and interest. Even for those of us with the best of intentions, this is not so easy. This is a problem for governments. Practically, they need us to obey their recommendations and to only buy what we need. They can enforce these behaviours upon us through policing, but some, such as the UK government, have preferred to appeal to our sense of duty and morality to act in the interest of society as a whole. They say “we have to ask you” rather than “you must”. They are invoking a communal spirit to do what’s right. The key point being that we should follow guidelines out of a sense of duty rather than needing to be commanded. Judging from the fact that I am having to ration my coffee supply, this is having mixed success. Friederich Nietzsche argues that appeals to morality are no less a system of power and discipline than the police. In his book The Genealogy of Morals, he argues that moral thinking arises first, not from a desire to be a good and happy human being, but from the upper classes as a way of distinguishing themselves from the lower classes – justifying why they had benefits those less fortunate did not. He points out that, in most languages, the words for good and evil arise from the words for “clean” and “unclean”. The evidence of the moral nobility of the upper classes was their cleanliness and the decadence of the lower classes was proven by their dirtiness. This still seems to be true today, as we are told it is a moral duty to be clean and that those who do not obey the bodily discipline of handwashing, facial awareness and social distancing are not simply dangerous but selfish.
The first line of defense that could be used to lower the risk of infection is through wearing face masks; both the use of surgical masks and N95 respirator masks (series # 1860s) helps control the spread of viruses 116. Surgical face masks prevent liquid droplets from a potentially infected individual from traveling through the air or sticking onto surfaces of materials, where they could be passed on to others. However, only N95 (series # 1860s) masks can protect against the inhalation of virions as small as 10 to 80 nm, with only 5% of the virions being able to penetrate completely; SARS-CoV-2 is similar to SARS-CoV in size and both are approximately 85 nm. Since particles can penetrate even five surgical masks stacked together, health-care providers in direct contact with patients must wear N95 (series # 1860s) masks but not surgical masks. In addition to masks, health-care providers should wear fitted isolation gowns in order to further reduce contact with viruses. Viruses can also infect an individual through the eyes. On January 22, 2020, a doctor was infected with SARS-CoV-2 although he wore an N95 mask; the virus might have entered his body through his inflammatory eyes. Thus, health-care providers should also wear transparent face shields or goggles while working with patients. For the general public in affected or potentially affected areas, it is highly suggested that everybody wash their hands with disinfectant soaps more often than usual, try to stay indoors for self-quarantine and limit contact with potentially infected individuals (Cowling BJ, Muller MP, 2006). Three feet is considered an appropriate distance for people to stay away from a patient. These actions are effective methods to lower the risk of infection as well as prevent the spread of the virus (Momattin H, Mohammed K, 2013).
Finally, in response we need to keep alive influences that combat this, whether friendships, family, forms of self-care (for me meditation and yoga and exercise for example). Most importantly we must be alert to keeping alive our capacity to reach out compassionately and kindly to others at a time when such pathways are endangered by heightened threat, fear and disgust reactions, alongside social withdrawal and depressive symptomatology. So, if we need to self-isolate to protect self or others, or be brave and get out there, at the risk of being Polyanna-ish, let’s try to keep hold of compassion, for ourselves and others.
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Cowling BJ, Muller MP, Wong IO, Ho LM, Lo SV, Tsang T. et al. Clinical prognostic rules for severe acute respiratory syndrome in low- and high-resource settings. Arch Intern Med. 2006