FEAR AND CONFUSION

I have a theory that scared people are the easiest to confuse. They grasp at straws in a bid for certainty, and that makes them more gullible. Ironically, their craving for assurance leads them down a path of accepting false information and being misguided in ways both big and small. They can be convinced of all sorts of things that others would red flag and question immediately. Because they cannot live in uncertainty. They want to “know” even if it makes them wrong. I have an inside track to more reliable information, working in healthcare. I happen to work at a global center for infectious diseases and related studies, including testing and vaccine development and broad statistical analyses. We have instant access to cutting edge science as it emerges. Not claiming expertise, but simply more ease, comfort, and acceptance in processing the onslaught of COVID information.

Of course, one need not work in healthcare to have a grasp of COVID and the basic preventive measures available today. Many of my non-medical friends seek out and discern what is reliable from the scientific research, government agencies, and international health organizations as well as other sources. They follow current guidelines, and keep up on the data as it emerges. Yet a few people I know choose to ignore the available evidence. They focus instead on the dramatic COVID stories of someone they know of who had it or didn’t get it, who narrowly escaped or died from it, or who was exposed to it and now has terrible problems! Debilitating! And these few weave a tenuous and fragile web of perceived personal safety by throwing around wildly generalized rules of conduct based on some third-hand stories they have unconsciously merged into their personal (fabricated) story. They cling mightily to it as if their lives depend on it. And the conclusions they draw tend to involve a lot of strong feelings about what other people should be doing, along with a sense of certainty that whatever they themselves are doing is correct. They know! They have a friend, a cousin, an acquaintance. They saw a meme, a cartoon, a chart or a graph on social media. It’s true!

It is human nature to try and make sense of the world around us. Otherwise, I don’t think we could handle living in it with all the natural uncertainty that surrounds our daily existence, and the even more frightening certainty of our own mortality. Knowing we are infinitesimally puny in the face of an immense universe (or multiverses!) and that our lives cannot count for much on a such a overwhelmingly immense scale, it is understandable that we want to break down the COVID pandemic information. How else can we begin to digest it? COVID is terrifying and it can sweep in unannounced and unsuspected, leaving permanent holes in our precious circle of loved ones, or even snuff out the very light of our own bodily existence. How can we face this risk?

For some, the same way we face other risks. By relying on the most reasonable sources of scientific information, and avoiding social media and other fear-mongering, misleading sources. Then by focusing on the practical steps we can take that the most reliable studies consider worthwhile: Working remotely. Avoiding unnecessary contact with others. Social distancing in public. Using a mask as appropriate. Using good hygiene and sanitation, along with a full dose of common sense. Now, will these measures guarantee that we and our loved ones do not catch COVID? Of course not. Just as wearing a seat belt, having our car regularly maintained, and driving defensively cannot guarantee that we don’t die or even kill someone in a traffic accident. Yet we don’t spend our time obsessively reading and sharing stories about freak accidents where people burn to death in their vehicles.

One of my friends told me she had read about someone pregnant catching it, and now she is worried sick about a pregnant relative. Another said her cousin who is a nurse caught it at work, and has antibodies, but she just read that having antibodies doesn’t help you. One told me they just read that all this surface washing and hand-washing doesn’t help you at all and even gives a false sense of safety, which puts you at higher risk! Another just saw that masks don’t help much, so it is better to wash a lot. Oh, no! Someone read or heard that keeping your distance is way better than trying to “wash it off afterwards”. So they are just staying at home and not even grocery shopping, getting deliveries at the door and not opening the door until the delivery person is gone. Problem is, she is freaking out because of being alone for so long. Heads are spinning. We want certainty that we won’t die, but of course we will die. We can be certain of that!

So how do we get back to living whatever time we have left without obsessively reading, guts churning, about one more shocking death, one more study that overturns all prior studies, soon to be refuted by another? One more shocking revelation about how broken in health certain of our COVID survivors are, and how it is linked to their blood type, their thymus, their dominant hand or their propensity to freckle? How do we turn off the voices of friends and family when they tell us how dangerous and scary everything is, how very old their grandmother is, how very young their pregnant daughter is, and how we should all stay home lest we all die? How do we move out of these tangled and choking threads of life stories shaped mostly as warning tales reminding us of our very fragile existence, by people desperately trying to weave a cloak of safety for themselves out of thin air?

People are farther apart than ever on what they think is right to do while navigating these quicksands of changing rules and numbers. One said she was justified in traveling to another country because her mother was turning 90 years old. Her friends were shocked, as they are decidedly NOT visiting their elders. One chose to travel to her dual citizenship country, as she had been in quarantine for nearly six months, had been working from home, never went outside without a mask, and had tested negative for COVID. Another friend wrote in response she herself would not feel right to do so, because “I wouldn’t want risk becoming a burden on the country’s healthcare system or harming other people, and I just cannot understand why some people in other countries think they can just do whatever the want!” Emotions run so high and they all circle around being right and making others wrong in order to try to feel safe while actually feeling very scared.

For me, my current philosophy is summed up by what a very wise cousin of mine told me when we fell into discussion about this. We absolutely agree that we must take all reasonable precautions in order to stay alive and protect the people around us, just as we do while driving. Yes. All of that. Be careful. Be responsible. But once you have taken all those steps, don’t shut down in fear, or get paralyzed by it, because then you ARE giving your life to COVID. Don’t presume that anybody you see doing anything different than you (such as visiting their aging mother) is a horrible, dangerous, and irresponsible person. Don’t let yourself wallow in so much fear that you cannot even see clearly, steer clearly, or actually keep yourself as safe and comfortable as you can be. My cousin’s advice to you all is that you be responsible and cautious, and considerate of others. But she added as a vital reminder that once that is accomplished:

“Let us keep in mind that we must also dare to live!”

I am with her.