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Fear in the Time of Pandemic

Along with the spread of the Covid-19 virus, a growing fear is propagating throughout our societies. The Conversation asked five experts to explain the current crisis as seen from their field of research. Discover their psychological, political, and health perspectives on the situation in these brief articles.

“Nothing fuels anxiety like uncertainty” by Antoine Pelissolo, Professor of Psychiatry at Inserm, Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC) 

Fear is a normal reaction to danger: it allows us to guide our choices and our actions to avoid taking excessive risks for our health and our lives. However, we know that not all human beings have the same sensitivity to danger: some tend to underestimate it and go ahead no matter the risk, while others are much more reserved - some, even paralysed - by fear.

This “psychodiversity” of anxious emotions (FR) comes in part from genetic foundations further differentiated by upbringing and events in our lives. It allows us as a species to adapt in changing environments, where we need people that are leaders and risk-takers, as well as others who are more cautious and who are more likely to survive in situations of grave danger. 

In the case of an epidemic such as the coronavirus, we observe this range of reactions in response to various danger signals: a potentially fatal virus that can affect all of us without us realising it right away (“where is the enemy?”), that is transferred by actions that are central to our daily lives (through the air that we breathe and by contact with others), and which presents a number of uncertainties inherent to a novel virus. Nothing fuels anxiety like uncertainty. 

For individuals who are more susceptible to fear, we see a great deal of distress, sometimes disproportionately, especially when old wounds are opened, such as those left by illnesses or traumatic events that the individual or others have suffered in the past. There are others, however, who do not experience the same levels of fear and who continue to take risks.

Hence the importance and the complexity of information and instruction (FR), which cannot be prescribed identically to all individuals and should take into account this variance in our sensitivity to fear. 

“That people have emotions does not mean that their judgment and actions are disconnected from reality” by Jeremy K. Ward, Sociologist, CNRS (GEMASS), Aix-Marseille University (AMU)

“Afraid”? Are people “afraid”? The problem with the word “afraid” is that it creates an image of people ruled by their emotions, making poor decisions because they are unable to rationally handle information.

Collectively, fear becomes “panic”, with the erratic actions of each individual contributing to the disorder, the chaos, of the whole. “Avoiding panic” becomes a key phrase in the governance of the crisis, especially in France. 

In the management of the pandemic, the idea that we can count on the population’s civic responsibility is central; we expect people to be capable of responding rationally to the threat of the epidemic and taking the necessary precautions to minimise the risk of infection.

But people remain equally aware that the population could plunge into a panic at any moment, the collective of rational individuals becoming a mob driven by its emotions and by fear. To avoid this, there is a need to “reassure” people, particularly by giving the impression that the situation is under control and asserting conviction. This vision, however, is problematic: genuine instances of panic are extremely rare, even in the most extreme circumstances, such as fires in confined spaces.

People queue to enter a supermarket near Lyon, 16th March 2020. Jean‑Philippe Ksiazek and AFP / People queue to enter a supermarket near Lyon, 16th March 2020. Jean‑Philippe Ksiazek and AFP

People queue to enter a supermarket near Lyon, 16th March 2020. Jean‑Philippe Ksiazek/AFP

That people have emotions does not mean that their judgement and their actions are disconnected from reality. The “fears” expressed on online forums and social networks and overflowing shopping carts are interpreted as a collective panic, but often demonstrate the imperfect scientific information that people have of the virus: official recommendations that cannot relay the complexity of individual cases and all of the processes of crisis management by the huge number of agents that are involved, including supermarkets.

It is tempting to dismiss these fears as the expression of an emotional overreaction. On the contrary, they signal the existence of profound uncertainties experienced by people who are having to make a number of difficult decisions. 

“The management of fear has become a nearly permanent element of political action” by Bruno Cautrès, CNRS Director of Research in Political Science, CEVIPOF Sciences Po

Fear is a dimension of human and social life that is intimately connected to politics and power. An epidemic such as Covid-19 can trigger certain mechanisms, especially in the political sphere, which may cause people to fall back on fear as a political device. 

In The Prince, Machiavelli defends the idea that, for the powerful, “it is better to be feared than loved”. He adds, nonetheless, an essential clarification:

[...] A prince ought to inspire fear in such a way that, if he does not win love, he avoids hatred; because he can endure very well being feared while he is not hated.”

How, then, can one inspire fear without being tyrannical, oppressive, dictatorial? Can people consent to respecting a feared authority?

The political discourse generated by this question - do I accept to submit to authority, both for fear of its power and because it can protect me from danger and from even greater fears? - is what one might call the very object of political analysis. The legitimacy of power, the mechanisms for its legitimation, and acceptance of authority are the most essential domains of political analysis, and they are concerned with bestowing upon one authority or another the administration of public fear. 

In contemporary societies, additional problems arise around the governance of fear. Advances in technology, science, and the accelerating progress of time and knowledge have generated, and continue to generate, fear. The future can appear threatening and uncertain. The management of fear has thus become a nearly permanent element of political and public action: reassuring citizens and administering the principle of precaution without displaying one’s own fears are fundamental elements in the exercise of power today. 

“Our most ingrained beliefs in virtue and the inevitability of globalisation are under attack” by Laurent Bibard, Philosopher, Professor of Business, Edgar Morin Chair in Complexity, ESSEC

To ask why the coronavirus has generated so much fear is a luxury available to those who have not yet suffered as a result of it, at least not in a significant way. However, there is still value in questioning: the more we learn about the crisis and the emotions that it provokes, the better equipped we will be to overcome it.

The coronavirus frightens all of humanity because the crisis that it has provoked is double-edged:

The pandemic poses problems on intrinsically immeasurable scales: the virus is infinitely small and yet, since it is exceptionally contagious, it threatens the entire world. 

Thousands of containers at the Chinese port of Quingdao. AFP / Thousands of containers at the Chinese port of Quingdao. AFP

Thousands of containers at the Chinese port of Quingdao. AFP

This crisis then fundamentally undermines an assumption that we believed we had long overcome but which, in reality, persists in all of our practices: the assumption that we humans control everything - our environment, our decisions, our lives, perhaps even death, as “transhumanists” believe... 
The coronavirus is so frightening because it propagates at a speed directly proportional to the rate of interactions and circulation that we have become used to on a global level. It is therefore at the heart of our very way of life that this microscopic virus, this rampant and devastating contamination, makes its nest, undermining our most ingrained beliefs in globalisation’s virtue and inevitability (FR).

“Our societies have reacted to their deepest fears with a craving, a compulsive appetite for catastrophe” by Patrick Zylberman, Health Historian, Centre Virchow-Villermé, École des hautes études en santé publique (EHESP)

Looking at the epidemic, we alternate between terror and fascination, with an awe we would experience faced with the sacred. Images of the Apocalypse of John evoke sentiments of hideousness, terror and repulsion towards epidemics.

The plague announces the imminence of the end. “The time is near” (John, 1:3). Toads, snakes, or worms - read: mud, filth, or demons -, the Apocalypse provides an inexhaustible index of metaphors for the epidemic. The illiterate similarly looked to the apocalyptic books decorating the church walls or the exhibition trestles. 

A century after the first wave of the Black Death (1348-1352), images of danses macabres (dances of death) would come to flourish on the basilica and cemetery walls. The plague was death as an equaliser. The Pope, the Emperor, nobles, workers, monks, and children had been killed.

Mask worn by Plague Doctors in the 17th Century to protect themselves from the epidemic. Davide Franceschini, Be, CC BY-NC-ND / Mask worn by Plague Doctors in the 17th Century to protect themselves from the epidemic. Davide Franceschini, Be, CC BY-NC-ND

Mask worn by Plague Doctors in the 17th Century to protect themselves from the epidemic. Davide Franceschini/Be, CC BY-NC-ND

Despite the repeated epidemic debacle, when the rate of infection is at its lowest, our confidence in medicine and in doctors is restored; there is a fall in violence. Beliefs and attitudes follow an oscillating and bipolar rhythm during an epidemic, one that alternates between calm and turmoil. 

This “gothic” epidemiology - that still flourished in the 1970s - seems far from today’s reality. Epidemiology was conceived back then as a sort of race into the abyss. Yet panic was not a common occurrence. The outbreak of rituals can have a reassuring effect on populations. During the Justinian Plague (541-750), Parisians, recently converted to Christianity, would have felt heartened by the ceremonial expulsion of bronze likenesses of Esculape (or Apollo Medicus), the small pagan god of medicine, from the city.

Then what good is all of this grandiloquence on the subject of fear? Western societies have reacted to their deepest fears with a raving for the worst, this compulsive appetite for catastrophe, or at least for its image, which lies at the heart of all Postmodern collectivity.

This article was originally published in French in The Conversation on 26 March 2020 and translated by Lily Parmar.

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