Uncertainty and Fear: Why is Corona Such a Big Deal

COVID-19, commonly known as Corona Virus, has been dominating headlines since its outbreak in late 2019. After its rapid flare-up in China, the virus has been slowly spreading around the world. However, there has been another disease which has outpaced Corona in speed and ferocity. Fear. Specifically, the creeping, crawling, nightmarish fear of the unknown.

In general, fear tends to be of something or for something. Even if it is irrational, it usually relates to a particular quantifiable property. Our knowledge of it gives it size and shape. Provides it with substance. For example, I am afraid of bears. Why am I afraid of bears? Well, bears are the ultimate land predators. They can weigh over half a ton, are armed with massive claws and fangs, covered in muscle, and their running speed can be up to 30 mph. As I am writing this, there are bears at the Edinburgh Zoo about 30 miles away. That means a bear could run here and break down my door within the hour. Why would a bear do that? Because bears can smell fear and I’m afraid of bears. My fear of bears in this instance is both created and mitigated by my knowledge of bears, which is why I’m still writing instead of hiding under my bed (which of course would be futile because bears can easily lift 500kg). Now, if my knowledge of bear habitat was limited to the fact that there could be bears anywhere in Scotland and they may or may not be hungry, my fear would be much greater. That is because it introduces uncertainty into my risk assessment and uncertainty is something humans are really bad at dealing with.

In normal circumstances, observation and information are what underlines a lot of our fear responses. Known dangers are those we can prepare for and confront. The unknown is something we cannot be prepared for and it makes us naturally anxious. There is a reason why we are all afraid of the dark. It’s full of the unknown. When it comes to outbreaks, it is natural that we feel anxious and fearful. Especially when we are continually presented with uncertain and partial information. Rising death counts, closing schools, and other ominous signals place us deep into the unknown. Into the dark. Into the fear. Doesn’t matter that the statistical risk of getting cancer or being mauled by a bear is higher. We don’t really understand the numbers. We understand the stories. And a lot of the times, the never-ending barrage of panic-inducing stories coming from social media or news sites can be overwhelming. It can make us go mad, buying up all the sanitary supplies and running away from Italian tourists. However, after reading this you will hopefully agree, that is not the way to go.

COVID-19 is infectious and uncontrollable. It is therefore great at creating anxiety, mistrust of other people, and spread of misinformation. Fear has been a great evolutionary tool that helped us survive in the world. However, our information technologies have evolved much faster than our brains and we are not yet capable to fully cope with the speed and power of narratives in the modern world. We should always remember that we have to make calm and rational decisions in situations like this, instead of turning into a rabid gang of post-apocalyptic bikers, fighting for the last remaining pack of bog rolls. Even though it is natural to feel anxiety and fear in a situation of uncertainty, we should try and recognize when the fear of the unknown is leading us towards bad decision-making. The hour has passed. The bear is not here. And the world keeps on spinning.