Why Covid-19 didn't create fear till it caused mass destruction
People began to lower their guards and venture out without following Covid-19 protocols
The definition of fear is highly subjective. When the coronavirus began to spread in late 2019, originating from China, the world couldn't care less and life was normal around the globe.
A pandemic was declared and the freedom of movement was curbed. For passengers to fly, strict standard operating procedures (SOPs) were put in place. Soon, people began to take the SOPs casually, drop their masks, disregard social distancing while travelling as they couldn't see the effects of the virus and refused to take the vaccines.
Passengers began to defy the curbs and a second wave hit a few nations where people began to see death up close. This is the stage when fear set in. The question arises: why didn't fear set in the first time when it was evident that the virus will take its toll?
To understand this, we need to define fear. Fear is subjective in nature and every person will define it a bit differently depending upon his/her perception. One of the definitions is that fear is the natural, and therefore, reasonable response to danger.
If this definition is correct, fear should then be proportional to the knowledge of the danger, to a realisation of the risks involved. Who knows so well as nurses and doctors the dangers of contagious infections? Is a fireman afraid of fire or an army man afraid of the sound of bullets? Infections, fires and bullets are all dangerous. Therefore, it can be said that fear is not proportionate to the actual risk of injury.
A German bomber aircraft over London in 1940 during the Second World War. Image courtesy: Twitter/@CcibChris
Fear of bombs
When the Second World War was in full swing and there was a threat of London being bombed and when sirens were first sounded there was panic and people scurried to their bomb shelters with little confidence of seeing the daylight again. Several times when the sirens sounded, no bombs dropped. Soon, people began to be adventurous and came out of the shelters to see what was happening around them and were later joined by more people.
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What was the explanation for this? The intelligent layman would say, 'Oh, it's just a case of crying wolf, wolf'. Psychologists would explain it as the extinction of the conditioned reaction. There are other adages like 'Out of sight, out of mind'. The ostrich philosophy grew and all caution was disregarded.
Soon bombs started falling for real. When a bomb explodes in a congested area, it divides the population who can hear it or see its effects into three groups.
First, some are killed. The morale of the community depends on the reaction of the survivors; those killed do not matter. The survivors are divided into near misses and remote misses.
The near misses are the people who are near a bomb. They feel the blast, they see the destruction and are horrified by the death and carnage. In this category, some people think, 'The next one will get me' or 'Will the next one get me?'
In contrast, the remote miss group can hear the siren, they hear the enemy plane and the explosion. There is tense waiting: will they come nearer? They don't and the siren for 'all clear' sounds.
The survivors think that they are safe. Then there is curiosity about what had happened, eager questions and speculations. Often there is a visit to the scene of destruction.
Frequently, the damage is found to be little. In this case, the old fear that all bombs will find their mark is dissipated. They don't get to see the bodies or large-scale damage.
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As the bombings continued, the people of London became resilient. One English psychiatrist wrote that even as bomb sirens rang, "Small boys continued to play all over the pavements, shoppers went on haggling, a policeman directed traffic in majestic boredom and the bicyclists defied death and the traffic laws. No one, as far as I could see, even looked into the sky.”
Why were Londoners so unfazed by the blitz? The answer is that when thousands of deaths are spread across eight million people, there are far more remote misses than there are near misses and direct hits.
As Malcolm Gladwell, in 'David and Goliath' puts it, "We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration." After events like a bombing are over, "The contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage."
The fear of Covid-19 followed a similar pattern. When the pandemic was declared, there was fear amongst people that they might contract the infection and meet the same fate as that of the people of Wuhan in China.
Soon they realised that they do hear about people getting infected and deaths but they haven't seen it in their vicinity. They began to lower their guards and venture out without taking precautions of wearing masks properly and/or washing hands. Their confidence grew so much that they began debating on whether to take the vaccination or not. They didn't realise that every person has the potential to carry and spread the virus and that the vaccination of every individual is the only answer. So, if Covid-19 hasn't happened to them or people known to them, it need not be feared.
The second wave hit hard since people didn't take precautions and also refused to get vaccinated. Now every third person is infected with the virus and death is being seen from very close quarters. People known to each other have died or survived to tell horrific tales. Fear has set in among people that they could be next. The health infrastructure, which was not built to handle a pandemic of this severity, is beginning to weather away and there are shortages of essential drugs and oxygen. Vaccines too are in short supply and ramping up of production cannot be effected overnight.
Canadian psychiatrist JT MacCurdy writes that the borough that has been panicky and troublesome with its demands for deep shelters to house the whole population and so on, after having been visited by the Luftwaffe, sticks out its chest and says, 'We are on the map now; we can take it.' The same phenomenon happens in the military. Troops that have never been under fire cannot be relied upon with confidence. But when they have a few casualties they are steadied and, interestingly enough, discipline improves.
It's always better to be safe than sorry.
(This article first appeared in avobanter.com)