Panic is dysfunctional
June 4, 2020
During the 2019 flu season, 61,000 Americans died; over 1,000 of them were from Washington State. The loss of life was tragic for those who lost loved ones, but it was not cause for panic. The coronavirus has claimed just over 100,000 Americans, 1,100 from Washington. COVID-19 is a severe flu epidemic, but it is not cause to panic. I am not trying to belittle the impact of the disease, but the numbers don’t justify the world-wide fear that put forty-one million Americans put of work.
Mass hysteria is nothing new. Fear results from the suggestion of threat to our individual or collective wellbeing. When the public has little actual knowledge, the threat can easily become a collective paranoia. During World War II, people on both sides were ready to believe they had an enemy within. This readiness to expose the boogie man resulted in the holocaust and the internment of Japanese Americans. One of the oldest examples in our country was the Salem witch trials of 1692. Although witches didn’t (and don’t) exist, the townspeople believed the claims of some young girls, and several innocent citizens were tried, convicted and hanged. On Halloween eve 1938, Orson Wells broadcast his, now famous, science fiction story about an invasion of aliens from Mars. People were ready to believe, and many thought we were under attack. Another episode somewhat closer to home was the US fuel shortage following the Yon Kippur War in October 1973. America sided with Israel, and OPEC retaliated by embargoing oil shipments to the United States. We quickly found other sources, and the output of our refineries was unchanged. Panic buying, however, created isolated cases where individual service stations were unable to get replenished before they emptied their storage tanks. The national news broadcast images of long lines as panicked motorists queued up to fill their tanks. There was never an actual shortage of gasoline.
As I studied the famous cases of mass hysteria, a common thread jumped out at me. The extent of the panic is limited by the amount of publicity. The wicca phobia that spawned the Salem witch trials was limited by word of mouth. Thus, it was contained to the village of Salem and a few neighboring settlements. The panic created by Orson Wells’ bit of theater was limited by the coverage of his radio broadcast. The 1973 fuel shortage scare spread nationwide via the airwaves of television. The suggestion that COVID-19 was an unprecedented threat to mankind raced around the world on the internet. We now have the capability to transmit suggestions of threats to the far corners of the globe in seconds. Mass hysteria can be generated almost instantaneously. This gives CNN an unbelievable amount of power.
The national media has contributed to the divisiveness surrounding the virus. They have been unfairly critical of those who disagree with shutting down the economy and the stay-at-home directive. I read a headline the other day that said, “Texas reopens despite a 26% increase in virus cases.” When I studied the article, the increase only applied t a small community in the western part of the state. The overall numbers for the state were favorable. Internationally, Sweden has been pillared for their refusal to social distance or shut down their businesses. A headline read, “Sweden’s herd immunity doesn’t seem to be working.” When I compared the numbers to the rest of Europe, however, Sweden fared better than average. If the facts don’t fit CNN makes them up.
CNN and the major networks are not always using their power wisely. Power should come with responsibility, but I haven’t seen much indication of it. As CNN and the other major networks spout propaganda in the guise of news, everyone is hurt. The public is swayed to unrealistic positions, the media in general loses credibility, and our local newspapers are unfairly painted with the same brush. I don’t think this is what our founding fathers had in mind when they wrote the first amendment.
(Frank Watson is a retired Air Force Colonel and long-time resident of Eastern Washington. He has been a free-lance columnist for over 20 years.)