Is Anxiety About the Coronavirus Out of Proportion?

Dinah Miller, MD


January 31, 2020

A number of years ago, a patient I was treating mentioned that she was not eating tomatoes. There had been stories in the news about people contracting bacterial infections from tomatoes, but I paused for a moment, then asked her: "Have there been any contaminated tomatoes here in Maryland?" There had not been and I was still happily eating salsa, but my patient thought about this differently: If disease-causing tomatoes were to come to our state, someone would be the first person to become ill. She did not want to take any risks. My patient, however, was a heavy smoker and already grappling with health issues that were caused by smoking, so I found her choice of what she should worry about and how it influenced her behavior to be perplexing. I realize it's not the same; nicotine is an addiction, while tomatoes remain a choice for most of us, and it's common for people to worry about very unlikely events even when we are surrounded by very real and statistically more probable threats to our well-being.

Today's news reports are filled with stories about 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), an illness that started in Wuhan, China; as of Jan. 31, 2020, there were 9,776 confirmed cases and 213 deaths. There have been an additional 118 cases reported outside of mainland China, including 6 in the United States, and no one outside of China has died.

The response to the virus has been remarkable: Wuhan, a city of more than 11 million inhabitants, is on lockdown, as are 15 other cities in China; 46 million people have been affected, the largest quarantine in human history. Travel is restricted in parts of China, airports all over the world are screening those who fly in from Wuhan, foreign governments are bringing their citizens home from Wuhan, and even Starbucks has temporarily closed half its stores in China. The economics of containing this virus are astounding.

Dr Dinah Miller

In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that, as of the week of Jan. 25, there have been 19 million cases of the flu in the United States. Of those stricken, 180,000 people have been hospitalized and 10,000 have died, including 68 pediatric patients. No cities are on lockdown, public transportation runs as usual, airports don't screen passengers for flu symptoms, and Starbucks continues to serve vanilla lattes to any willing customer. Anxiety about illness is not new; we've seen it with SARS, Ebola, measles, and even around Chipotle's food poisoning cases – to name just a few recent scares. We have also seen a lot of media on vaping-related deaths, and as of early January 2020, vaping-related illnesses affected 2,602 people with 59 deaths. It has been a topic of discussion among legislators, with an emphasis on either outlawing the flavoring that might appeal to younger people or simply outlawing e-cigarettes. No one, however, is talking about outlawing regular cigarettes, despite the fact that many people have switched from cigarettes to vaping products as a way to quit smoking. So, while vaping has caused 59 deaths since 2018, cigarettes are responsible for 480,000 fatalities a year in the United States and smokers live, on average, 10 years less than nonsmokers.

So what fuels anxiety about the latest health scare, and why aren't we more anxious about the more common causes of premature mortality? Certainly, the newness and the unknown are factors in the coronavirus scare. It's not certain how this illness was introduced into the human population, although one theory is that it started with the consumption of bats who carry the virus. It's spreading fast, and in some people, it has been lethal. The incubation period is not known, or whether it is contagious before symptoms appear. Coronavirus is getting a lot of public health attention and the World Health Organization just announced that the virus is a public health emergency of international concern. On the televised news on Jan. 29, 2020, coronavirus was the top story in the United States, even though an impeachment trial is in progress for our country's president.

The public health response of locking down cities may help contain the outbreak and prevent a global epidemic, although millions of people had already left Wuhan, so the heavy-handed attempt to prevent spread of the virus may well be too late. In the case of the Ebola virus – a much more lethal disease that was also thought to be introduced by bats – public health measures certainly curtailed global spread, and the epidemic of 2014-2016 was limited to 28,600 cases and 11,325 deaths, nearly all of them in West Africa.

Most of the things that cause people to die are not new and are not topics the media chooses to sensationalize. Dissemination of news has changed over the decades, with so much more of it, instant reports on social media, and competition for viewers that leads journalists to pull at our emotions. We might worry about getting food poisoning from romaine lettuce – if that is what the news is focusing on – but we don't worry when we enter our cars, keep firearms in our homes, or light up cigarettes. And while we may, or may not, get flu shots and avoid those who have the flu, how and where we position both our anxiety and our resources does not always make sense. Certainly some people are predisposed to worry about both common and uncommon dangers, while others seem never to worry and engage in acts that many of us would consider dangerous. If we are looking for logic, it may be hard to find – there are those who would happily go bungee jumping but wouldn't dream of leaving the house out without hand sanitizer.

The repercussions from this massive response to the Wuhan coronavirus are significant. For the millions of people on lockdown in China, each day gets emotionally harder; some may begin to have issues procuring food, and the financial losses for the economy will be significant. It's not really possible to know yet if this response is warranted; we do know that infectious diseases can kill millions. The AIDS pandemic has taken the lives of 36 million people since 1981, and the influenza pandemic of 1918 resulted in an estimated 20 million to 50 million deaths after infecting 500 million people. Still, one might wonder if other, more mundane causes of morbidity and mortality – the ones that no longer garner our dread or make it to the front pages – might also be worthy of more hype and resources.

Dr. Miller is coauthor with Annette Hanson, MD, of "Committed: The Battle Over Involuntary Psychiatric Care" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2016). She has a private practice and is assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, both in Baltimore.

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