Photo of Dr FIona Williams for article by Dr Fiona Williams on

The Contagion of Fear – the Coronavirus Pandemic and Medicine

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We are currently in the grip of a worldwide panic over COVID-19, or 2019-nCoV, the novel coronavirus pandemic.

As I write, supermarkets are being stripped of essentials like toilet paper as well as respiratory masks and canned goods as panic buying escalates. Events of all kinds and scales are being cancelled as one organisation after another jump on the bandwagon of fear and conformity. I myself am cancelling overseas flights to a conference under instruction for the same reason – whilst observing the madness unfold … again. Just like we did with SARS, MERS, ZIKA, EBOLA and all the other fancy-named viral calamities that dramatise our existence, only this time with even more obsessive media coverage.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this phenomenon is how the medical system as a whole has also over-reacted. On the one hand there is a call for calm collaboration, but on the other hand, there is a simple regurgitation of ‘information’ ad nauseum, given without context, which simply fuels the public paranoia and fear. A schizophrenic approach indicating a system in conflict with itself.

Workplaces, Institutions and Hospitals alike are inundated with numerous ‘helpful’ emails disseminating ‘facts’ about the latest coronavirus outbreaks and restrictions as well as requesting workers to stay home and generally live in as much separation to each other as possible. Doctors are being publicly vilified and threatened with disciplinary action (without a thought to protecting their anonymity) for daring to come to work (which our overstretched and understaffed medical systems usually demand) whilst recovering from a mild cold.

Perhaps, like me, you questioned why a virus that statistically kills fewer people on a daily basis than heart disease, cancer, war, domestic violence, suicide, or influenza, causes such an extreme reaction?  Maybe, like me, you are more than inconvenienced by the extreme separative measures that the ‘pandemic‘ demands of us. The imposition to conform and view our fellow humans and Doctors as irresponsible ‘pariahs’ should they have cold symptoms, refuse to don the mask (bodysuit!) or just test positive for COVID-19.  I am specifically reminded of the ‘whistle-blower’ Chinese doctor who alerted the authorities of the outbreak and underwent public pillory up to and despite his own death. (1)

Whilst it is important for us, as people and as health care professionals, to take whatever steps we can to plan for the eventuality of the spread of this virus and to do whatever we can to stop the spread ourselves, whether that be washing our hands, coughing into a tissue, or staying home if we are ill, it is also important that we help people to understand the truth of what is going on, to put things into perspective, and encourage people to take care of themselves in a way that will help to protect them from falling ill should they be exposed to this or any other virus.

To put things in perspective, the WHO coronavirus stats from 12 March 2020 state that:

  • A total of 125,048 cases have been confirmed globally (6729 new in the last 24 hours)
  • In China, there have been 80,981 cases in total (26 new)
  • Of these, there have been 3173 deaths
  • Outside of China, there have been 44,067 confirmed cases (6703 new)
  • Of these, there have been 1440 deaths
  • The virus has now been confirmed in 117 countries/territories/areas. (2)

These numbers are of course only based on the people who have been tested, and this varies from country to country, so the data are incomplete and probably an underestimate of what is truly going on in terms of infection rates, and possibly an overestimation in terms of death rates, as most people who are asymptomatic or only mildly ill are probably not presenting for testing.

By comparison, WHO estimates that seasonal influenza may result in 290,000 – 650,000 deaths each year due to respiratory diseases alone. (3)

The media is obsessively circulating anything and everything to do with ‘the virus’ – down to the minutiae of knife-fights breaking out in supermarkets over toilet-roll shortages. The circulating virus ‘jokes’ on Facebook, the ‘me-first’ hoarders, the scam-artists taking advantage of the situation and the conflicting media information all culminate in a super-distracting noise quality that drowns out all else. Why? To normalise our acceptance of the poisonous cocktail of Fear that is the real player behind the scenes.

So what is really going on here?

How is it that our current medical system, crumbles so easily when the fear-factor rises, demurely falling in step with the prevailing panic?

To answer these questions, let’s delve deeper into the nature of fear; unseen yet easily felt in the body by all of us, overtly or covertly contagious by our common human experience.  As medical professionals, we are taught only to believe in an ‘evidence base’ for all we do and say. But what is the evidence base for Fear? The consequences of fear are very real for patients and doctors alike, but fear itself has no real ‘evidence’. In the hospital and health-care systems it prevents us from bringing our best to our patients and may certainly help explain the horrific suicide statistics for doctors – a new ‘evidence base’ that is now un-ignorable. Fear undermines trust and confidence in ourselves and in others; it destroys the doctor-patient relationship and most tellingly, it facilitates manipulation of large groups of people. And yet still it has no direct evidence.

At its root, Fear is a poison to Love (also non evidence based). Fear eradicates the true care that is at the heart of Medicine’s purpose, promoting instead self-interest, conflict and separation. Just like a virus, fear is ancient and dormant until conditions are ripe.

Florence Nightingale observed during her wartime nursing duties: ‘How very little can be done under the spirit of Fear’ and Plato also offered us that ‘Courage is knowing what not to fear’.

In other words, we have the choice to become aware and discerning of each ‘fear-full’ situation, to observe and respond to it rather than react and infect each other. We could choose to hold steady and not jump onto its glittery bandwagon just to be part of the new ‘normal’.

Do we, as a world-wide medical ‘body’, dare dismiss the contagion of Fear while the evidence of its impact is crippling an already beleaguered Medical system?

The simple fact is that Fear is a choice of energy, an energy in motion (e-motion) that circulates and infects for one purpose – to separate us from ourselves and each other. The contagious consequences of which we see played out in the drama of a viral epidemic.

Perhaps it is those who consistently choose this Fear that most need the quarantine period, a space to stop the inner conflict and feel the evil an alignment to Fear brings us all.

Ultimately, Fear is an excuse to ‘normalise’ playing small, to ditch collective responsibility and behave with little integrity (or true care) for one another.

We could go one step further and say it is not the virus which has sparked Fear. It is the deep infection of Fear that has facilitated the spectacle of the virus pandemic – and held us tightly in the grip of separation and distraction – such that the true innate collaborative care we know we are all capable of – is lost in the mayhem.

Why do we normalise extreme ‘containment measures’ for one acute viral infection whilst casually dismissing the daily tragedy of mortality figures that is ischaemic heart disease or diabetes, to name just two chronic conditions. Could it be that the latter require a bigger dose of personal and collective responsibility?

Doctors of all flavours are still routinely encouraged to use their innate powers of observation.  And observation is both an antidote to Fear and a path to Truth. Perhaps we can apply this teaching both within our respective healthcare settings and within our lives. Having the courage to be aware, discern and choose observation over reaction, aligns us to Truth over Fear.

In general, the CDC recommends the following to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, which include both coronaviruses and influenza viruses:

  • wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces
  • avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands
  • avoid close contact with people who are sick (not practical when you are a doctor!)
  • stay home when you are sick. (4)

While people are so fearful and so open to learning what they can do to take care of themselves, why not offer them sensible advice that can support them?

Why not suggest that they can support their own immune systems by getting good-quality sleep, eating a nutritious diet (and perhaps supplementing with Vitamin C), not smoking, not drinking alcohol, minimising their intake of sugar and processed carbohydrates, getting regular exercise and taking deep care of themselves, including managing their stress by getting support and supporting each other.

Not everyone who is exposed to a virus gets sick and dies, and the way we care for ourselves is vital. If we put as much effort into caring for ourselves on a daily basis as we are currently expending buying toilet rolls and masks and obsessing about this particular novel disease, we would collectively be a lot more healthy.

It is up to us to care deeply for ourselves at this time and to counsel our patients to do the same, and to support ourselves and each other – family, friends, patients, staff and colleagues – for we are all in this together. And rather than breathing a collective sigh of relief when the current panic abates and then going back to our old ways, we could continue to bring the same level of deep care to ourselves, each and every day.

References:

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/feb/06/whistleblower-chinese-doctor-dies-from-coronavirus
  2. https://www.who.int/docs/default-source/coronaviruse/20200312-sitrep-52-covid-19.pdf?sfvrsn=e2bfc9c0_2
  3. https://www.who.int/influenza/surveillance_monitoring/bod/en/
  4. https://www.livescience.com/new-coronavirus-compare-with-flu.html#xenforo-comments-739

13 COMMENTS

  1. I love the precision in which you dissect what is occurring across the globe with the escalating fear and separation that the Coronavirus feeds humanity. I found this article to be absolutely brilliant and it confirmed what I have been observing – that fear annihilates the connection that is innate within people.
    Thank you Dr Fiona.

  2. This is the wisest and most comprehensive article I have read about what is really going on with corona virus. We are not a healthy race of people, and true health is more than lack of symptoms or a terminal illness.The contagion of fear is something that we all need to confront within ourselves and understand its damaging consequences.Thank you Dr Fiona for such a clear and important perspective.

  3. This is extremely well written and 100% correct, it is a shame you are not the advisor to the government. The media are driving this, and will cause the collapse of our economy if allowed to continue

  4. Fantastic work Fiona on exposing the contagion of fear and hysteria that abounds our societies. There are a lot of keys to take away from this piece to unlock what is truly going on.
    Well done, thank you for expressing what is so needed now. 🥰🌹

  5. Many great points are raised in this article, with the following comments:

    “Fear undermines trust and confidence in ourselves and in others; it destroys the doctor-patient relationship and most tellingly, it facilitates manipulation of large groups of people.”

    I could add that fear allows the doing unto others and justification thereof, whether that be one or many, as the ‘other’ is so paralysed and discombobulated that action is almost impossible. Thus whatever is fear-inciting can have its way over people (you and me included).

    You bring a beautiful point to the fore in the examination of that “way”. How are we cutting each other off, fighting, bickering, pushing, careless about all others but ourselves? We are like this all the time anyway, one needs just to look at traffic for a great example of our extant ‘me first’ attitude.

    “Fear eradicates the true care that is at the heart of Medicine’s purpose…”

    This brings back into focus the fact we are all in this together. Sometimes there are things in and about life that are excruciating and horrible – this is a fact of the physical realm of life, but we need not point it out and callously laugh; rather, we can express our care and concern and help each other through tough circumstances.

    “Florence Nightingale observed during her wartime nursing duties: ‘How very little can be done under the spirit of Fear’ and Plato also offered us that ‘Courage is knowing what not to fear’.”

    I would also add Franklin D. Roosevelt’s paraphrased words: there is nothing to fear but fear itself. In London c.1944, prior to the end of World War 2, Sir Winston Churchill rode around in a Daimler Coupe fitted with loudspeakers so he could address the public. ( https://www.google.com.au/amp/s/www.bbc.com/news/amp/uk-england-oxfordshire-36682562 ). He demonstrated courage in the face of fear, giving others that same courage.

    “We have the choice to become aware and discerning of each ‘fear-full’ situation, to observe and respond to it rather than react and infect each other.”

    If I can continue to circulate through the hospital corridors with a smile, a laugh and a light-hearted approach (combined with excellent hand hygiene), then there is no reason to fall into fear or panic, even while my health service ‘prepares for the worst while hoping for the best’ (to quote one of the consultants).

    “Observation is both an antidote to Fear and a path to Truth.”

    Observation is also one of the key principles of the scientific method, combined with elucidation and declaration of one’s own biases. Observation helps me to understand more than the physical, more than the verbal. There is so much more to us than meets the eye, that the fear frenzy risks our continued induced blindness to.

    “Having the courage to be aware, discern and choose observation over reaction, aligns us to Truth over Fear.”

    There may be no formal evidence other than lived experience of your statement, but absence of evidence has never proved to be evidence of harm. I’m open and willing to silence the panic, still the fear, and quiet the thoughts to openly observe what this pandemic actually offers us, whatever that may be.

  6. This is such a sensible read thank-you Dr Fiona, it cuts through the nonsense and leaves you feeling empowered over your own health and well-being. This is in stark contrast to the information and hysteria the media are circulating and indeed some government agencies, they conjure up fear and a sense of hopelessness. They are responsible for inciting the panic that as you say have a far greater impact on our overall health and well-being as individuals and as a society.

  7. Oh dear Fiona. Have you stopped for a moment to consider the misinformation you are sharing in this post?

    Oddly enough you have recognised that whistleblower Doctor Li Wenliang was pilloried even after his own death, and yet you continue to pillory the message that he was trying to pass on, even after his death

    What he was trying to get people to notice is that this disease has all the hallmarks of a pandemic. And we now know, only too well, that he was right. Take a moment to consider if you have jumped onto the disinformation bandwagon?

    Its not helpful for you to quote figures which, while technically correct, are used by you to undermine the seriousness of this pandemic. It is irrelevent that more people may die today from cancer, heart disease and so on if in three weeks from now those same people with cancer, heart disease and so on (some of them your patients no doubt) will not be able to get an ICU bed in a hospital because it is overwhelmed by Covid19 patients.

    Have you stopped for a moment to consider how your own fear has played into this article?

    What is it you fear of losing if you can’t make it to your conference that you are cancelling your tickets for? What it is about your lifestyle bubble that you fear losing when you complain that you are “more than inconvenienced by the extreme separative measures…”?

    It is physical separation that is requested. Not energetic separation. You can choose to remain as connected as you wish with those around you or who you like to be in contact with — it does not require your actual physical presence to achieve this.

    These measures that you complain of are entirely necessary to avoid the continual doubling of the population of Corona Virus cases. As a doctor I’m sure you are actually aware of this, and as a doctor surely you would be taking action to protect the wellbeing of the broader population rather than focussing on your own self interest?

    When you wrote this article on the 13th March Australia had 198 confirmed cases of Corona Virus. Today as I write this there are 1353 cases of which 281 were diagnosed in the last 24 hours. Its worth noticing that there are more new cases now in one day, 281, than entire history of cases in Australia for the first months leading up to the 13th March.

    The rate of growth is what is really significant, and this is what will overwhelm our health system, and put at risk the lives of anyone who needs hospital care two or three weeks out from now.

    But hey, there is something that we can do about this. Of course all the things that you outline about lifestyle are important, but most critical is that we do not go out. Not just when we feel sick, but just do not go out at all. We must all self isolate if we to stand a chance of flattening the curve.

    Something you could do is remove this misleading article from publication so that there are not more people who read it and add to the spreading of the disease by not taking it seriously, and ignoring those who are offering advice based on the science.

    Please encourage your peers to listen to and take notice of people such as Dr Norman Swan who is doing a great job of explaining the true implications of this pandemic and advising what best we can do to minimise its spread.

  8. Misinformation is an interesting word isn’t it? Similar in tone to its patronising cousin, ‘pseudo-science’. It’s being a used a lot right now, primarily to efficiently silence those who do not 100% endorse mainstream health information or ‘necessary’ measures, even if these often defy common sense. And in early April, as these measures unfold, we can see they are ripping our social fabric apart, disconnecting our already heavily disconnected world.

    Dismissing alternative views with intellectual shaming and sophisticated name-calling conveniently aborts any deeper and broader awareness to be had. Specifically, regarding the role ‘corona-fear’ plays in our collective behaviour and psyche. It asks one to stop feeling into a situation and just accept. This approach promotes much, much more than just physical separation, and belies a hidden agenda.

    Far from being ‘bubble-based’, self-interested or inciting a false confidence in our wellbeing, this article highlights the dis-proportionate nature of our collective response to COVID-19, when compared to the pandemics that already surround us daily. Those pandemics to which we, as one humanity, have turned a comfortably blind eye.
    We currently tolerate:
    • The obesity pandemic
    • The suicide pandemic
    • The heart disease pandemic
    • The diabetes pandemic
    • The cancer pandemic (there are few to choose from)
    • The depression and mental health pandemic

    These (each) carry greater mortality per year than the current (and much projected) Coronavirus peak. As another media-interviewed doctor put it, these lifestyle related diseases are in fact the true ‘elephant in the room’.

    We must dare to ask why they also are not (and have never been) deemed ‘important enough’ to warrant our immediate and world-united attention.

    Fear is not an excuse for tunnel vision and that is what COVID-19 has produced in our collective psyche. A tunnel so tight it does not allow for broader understanding of the unseen factors at work.

    For many, it has allowed a pious indulgence in self-righteous, hurtful and hypocritical behaviours in the name of #stayingsafe.

    This article is not against ‘not going out’. It is about instead ‘going inward’ – and feeling into the Truth of what this virus is exposing about humanity and our relationship with fear. Beyond the glamour of virus ‘fighting’ and misery of job-losses, there is a deeper message to be had.

    Digital connection will never be a replacement for the full version of enriching, constellated human connection, free of artificial controls.

    When the playing field is levelled and the mainstream media are mobilised to promote fear, we find humanity agreeing blindly with governments and institutions, previously regarded as corrupt and untrustworthy. (Impeachment? What impeachment?). Whereas in our daily lives, without authoritative direction, we are happy to irresponsibly leave the ‘other’ pandemics, and those affected by them, essentially unattended to.

    Time will tell if our collective fear response and herd-like mentality in the era of COVID-19 has left us with much more than just a ‘flattened curve’. A global financial depression, a terminally crippled health-care system and a love-less new ‘world order’ of authoritarian regimes may be ‘worth it’ for some … but not for this human.

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