Panic and the pandemic | Inquirer Opinion

Panic and the pandemic

/ 04:15 AM February 07, 2020

It was a tweet that got us off our seats one slow afternoon at the office. We made a beeline for the bookstore and encountered some colleagues who just came from there. We bought our boxes of face masks from an already dwindling supply and stocked on rubbing alcohol as well.

What’s the difference between ethyl and isopropyl, we asked among ourselves. We never really bothered until that day. We feel a little safer now, as various scents of alcohol waft in the office air.


“Where were you when the news broke out that the country had its first novel coronavirus case?” A typical, interesting question. It’s all we ever ask about a day that is anything but ordinary. And such days are aplenty today.

Where were you when this news broke out? Or when that tragedy struck? Because where we were and what we were doing at the moment of alarm may just be as important as the moment itself. How we react to events around us has become key to our survival as a society, and also a window into our collective psyche.


Panic, for instance, is a default reaction. From personal encounters with speeding motorbikes to issues of public emergency, we typically heighten our anxiety and think wildly. “Don’t panic,” we’re often told—but it’s easier said than done.

These feelings of fear and panic, however, are nothing unnatural and are very much normal. They are biologically rooted in a part of our brain called the amygdala. Interestingly, the amygdala is something we share with reptiles. Neuroscientist James R. Howe VI calls this the “lizard part of our brains.”

While the deeper parts of our brain were inherited from mammals, the lizard part controls our primitive and unconscious reflexes. It causes us to “fight, flee, feed and fornicate.” And, according to Howe, it can also make people lose their money, or elect Donald Trump.

In a social context, panic makes us more easily influenced by our groups. In a paper titled “Crowd behaviour during high-stress evacuations in an immersive virtual environment,” the researchers discovered that during a situation of heightened alert, we are more aware of what our groups are doing and feeling. We are then more easily influenced during these states, and are prone to herding and overcrowding. Which explains why we bought those boxes of face masks in groups, and why there is mass buying of rubbing alcohol in supermarkets today.

Our susceptibility to panic, overt decision-making, and herd mentality are part of our emergency playbook. It is us in our most human state. But that narrative is supposedly short-lived—resolutions emerge and hysteria dies down. With the novel coronavirus, however, our reactions may delay the resolutions.

Farhad Manjoo’s New York Times piece “Beware the Pandemic Panic” expressed the worry about drastic actions taken by a frightened world in the midst of the outbreak. Specifically, “…Panic about a foreign virus offers society another chance to target marginalized people,” said Manjoo.

Indeed, the global response to this new virus has also included counterintuitive reactions—people getting wary of their health institutions, scientific findings, and government policies. There is high demand for face masks even if the World Health Organization has said there is no need for them among otherwise healthy people. We are scared for our lives even if published materials say there is no need for such heightened fear. And the outbreak has as much social, political, and economic repercussions as it has medical ones.


The coronavirus scare best exemplifies our fears when they are duly magnified. These are very human reactions, but as was said in “The Last Jedi”: “Panic doesn’t solve problems. It just creates new ones.”


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