If there is one lesson the world should learn from the great pandemic of 2020, it is this: we must discard the myth of panic.
Or at least this is the case I make in an essay I have just published in Palladium. Fear of mass panic was key to delayed action against the epidemic in the PRC:
There, provincial and municipal officials muzzled early warnings of a novel respiratory illness from doctors, virologists, and health officials. They feared what might happen if normal citizens became aware of the disease. “When we first discovered it could be transmitted between people, our hospital head, chairman, medical affairs department, they sat and made endless calls to the city government, the health commission,” wrote one Wuhan nurse in January of 2020. “[But] they said we still can’t wear protective clothing, because it might stir up panic.”
Similar concerns prompted China’s National Health Commission to issue a confidential notice forbidding labs that had sequenced the new virus to publish their data without government authorization. Even as China’s top health official warned the Chinese health system to prepare for the “most severe challenge since SARS in 2003” and ordered the Chinese CDC to declare the highest emergency level possible, public-facing officials were still reporting that the likelihood of sustained transmission between humans was low.
The Chinese continually stalled WHO teams trying to gather information on the pandemic; it was not until the last week of January that Chinese health officials told the WHO the reason for their stonewalling. These officials conceded to the WHO team that they required help “communicating this to the public, without causing panic.” The WHO was sensitive to Beijing’s concerns and delayed its declaration of a global health emergency for several days. “You’ve got to remember this was a novel virus,” one member of a WHO delegation then tasked with the China response would say. “You don’t want to push the panic button until you’ve got reasonable confidence in your diagnosis.”1
Tanner Greer, “The Myth of Panic,” Palladium (15 July 2021)
But also in the United States:
Unlike Chinese news sites, ordered to censor sensitive words in their reports to prevent coverage of the new disease from fomenting “societal panic,” American newspapers did not operate under the purview of an official censorship regime. But they too were afraid to “push the panic button.” With titles like “Should You Panic About the Coronavirus? Experts Say No” (The LA Times), “The Flu is a Bigger Threat” (NPR), “The Cognitive Bias That Makes Us Panic About the Coronavirus” (Bloomberg), and “The Pandemic Risks Bringing out the Worst In Humanity” (CNN), American magazines and newspapers led the charge to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak and delegitimize fear of it. In a piece from The New York Times titled “Beware the Pandemic Panic,” Farhad Manjoo described the reasoning behind this push: “What worries me more than the new disease is that fear of a vague and terrifying new illness might spiral into panic.”
This attitude was widely shared by the public servants responsible for preparing America for the pandemic to come. Most famously, Donald Trump was aware that the coronavirus was more dangerous than the flu, but refused to raise the alarm because, as he told journalist Bob Woodward, “I don’t want people to be frightened, I don’t want to create panic, as you say, and certainly I’m not going to drive this country or the world into a frenzy.”
But Trump was hardly the only politician to take this stance. As New York City became the center of the American pandemic, the city’s health commissioner successfully argued against lockdowns on the grounds that if New Yorkers became “fearful due to messaging, we could have more permanent harm than we currently have with Covid-19.” That same month, California public health officials argued against wearing masks for fear they might “add to a climate of alarm.” This same argument would reappear a month later when White House officials worried that a mask mandate “might cause panic.”
Perhaps they remembered attacks levied at them by Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot a few weeks earlier: “I will candidly tell you that I was very disappointed with the comments of the CDC yesterday and members of the Trump administration around coronavirus,” she remarked after the CDC announced that Americans should prepare for the worst. “I want to make sure that people understand they should continue to go about their normal lives…we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves and suggest to the public that there’s a reason for them to be fearful.”2
But there was no panic! There was fear, yes, but no panic as the disaster movies portray it. The fearful of Wuhan did not rise up in rebellion against the Communist Party; the fearful of Milan did not loot stores or disrupt the medical system; the fearful of New York did not duel each other to the death over toilet paper rolls. People died, economies crashed, and families suffered to forestall a curse that never came. Panic almost never comes. This social malady is more imagined more often than experienced. What we have to fear is not fear itself.
Readers will find some of the major themes of this essay foreshadowed in my earlier book review of Samuel Cohn’s Epidemics: Hate and Compassion from the Plague of Athens to AIDS. Cohn’s exhaustive survey of epidemic history suggests that the vast majority of past epidemics strengthened, not weakened the social order. Most epidemics in human history did not create violence, but cultures of altruism and compassion. Cohn’s conclusions mirror those of the academic subfield known as “disaster sociology.” Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (which I reviewed in bullet form here) introduced me to this field of study and its main conclusions. Natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and the like are much like epidemics: they do not create this thing called ‘panic’ and usually result in temporary survival communities bound together by what the anti-septic language of the sociologists labels “pro-social behavior.”
But if panic is a mostly fictional phenomenon, why do our leaders (and our film-makers) fear it so? The intellectual genealogy of the panic myth is long and twisted. In the essay I trace it from Gustave le Bon’s reaction to the Paris Commune and industrial stikes of the late 1900s into the theories of air war theorists in the early 1900s. From there it traveled into the civil defense plans of war planners fearing air—and then later, nuclear—attacks on civilian populations. Once it was entrenched in American images of nuclear war, it spread into our conception of disaster writ-large.
The myth persists because it is a useful and even comforting fiction for leaders under pressure. As I write:
Catastrophe presents a leadership class with a terrible contradiction. On the one hand, the perception that leadership is not equal to the unfolding calamity erodes the legitimacy of any ruling class. Leaders understand that Heaven’s Mandate rests on their effective prevention of and response to crisis. On the other hand, the chaos inherent to disaster inevitably reduces leadership’s ability to control—or even stay aware of—the events by which they will be judged.
Further, the high morale and solidarity that citizens exhibit during a disaster dissolve the individualist outlook that elites have long learned to control and maintain. The seemingly positive and prosocial solidarity response of the population is itself a threat to the mechanisms of elite power in our society. Just as disasters empower normal citizens on the ground, who have no choice but to take fate into their own hands, they leave elites feeling distant and helpless. Chess and Clarke call this state of affairs “elite panic:” a fearful distrust of the populace that prompts leaders to restrict information, over-concentrate resources, and use coercive methods to reassert authority in the face of temporary breakdowns in public order. This style of response poses an active danger to disaster survivors and, ironically, creates the very resistance to authority that leaders fear most…..
One reason this myth has persisted despite decades of evidence to the contrary is that narratives of panic are a useful crutch for leaders under pressure. By projecting their own insecurities onto the masses they lead, elites find a ready scapegoat for their own failings. A leader who does not measure up to the demands of disaster will find it easier to blame the crowd for panic than accept the crowd’s harsh judgments on his own performance.
…crises sift the worthy from the base. It is natural for a leader to fear such a test. It is dangerous for him to deny that such a test is taking place. This is the temptation of disaster: to retreat from disaster management into perception management and to worry more that the people fear than about the dangers the people face. The source of temptation is not hard to spot: it is easy for a governing class to take credit for preventing panic when panic so rarely takes place. It is easier to define success in terms of emotional states: those are intangible and unmeasurable. Lives lost and dollars spent are different matters. Few men are eager to gamble their personal authority or the legitimacy of their regime on something so easily assessed.3
What we need then are leaders who are not afraid to let the public fear. Much pain could have been avoided had our leaders trusted us not to panic.
Read the full thing at Palladium.