Burton: We Need to be Aware of Our Emotions During the Coronavirus Crisis


(Courtesy Pikrepo)

By Logan Burton, Opinion Writer


Our lifestyles have dramatically changed because of the coronavirus. All throughout the world, shutdowns have caused economic crises, our favorite events are canceled and schools all throughout the nation have shut down or transitioned online — including the University of Utah. Amidst the overwhelming changes happening, the media remains vigilant in reporting developments of COVID-19. These stories can be frightening and disconcerting, but addressing a public health crisis requires calm and assertive decision making from not only policymakers and public health workers, but also the public. We need to be aware of how our emotions can cloud our judgment and remain brave amidst overwhelming developments. It is in everybody’s interest to remain emotionally on guard.


Strong Rhetoric

News publications need stories that entice readers. Most news publications that usually charge for subscriptions —including The New York Times, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Economist —are removing paywalls for coverage of COVID-19. These publications are certainly receiving more traffic than usual and some have even seen a spike in subscriptions. The rhetoric in some news stories is particularly bold recently and is certain to elicit emotions in readers. For example, the Forbes opinion piece “Coronavirus Is Not an Emergency. It’s a War” conjures feelings of fear just by the headline alone. A video by British news channel Sky News covering COVID-19 in Italy is equally frightening with footage of public health officials dawning full suits and rows of coffins for recently deceased victims. President Trump, despite previously dismissing the virus, has now ramped his rhetoric posturing himself as a “wartime president.” Understandably, some might be anxious or unsettled during a pandemic, but studies have shown that anxiety translates poorly to good decision making. At a time when the costs of decisions are so high, we cannot afford brash or overly emotional rhetoric to distract from critical issues.


Handling Statistics with Care

Reports and news coverage of coronavirus are well saturated with statistics. Websites like the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Tracker have gained significant traffic since it began at the beginning of the year. These statistics cover the progress of COVID-19 in terms of the number infected, recovered, countries most affected and more. This data can help readers understand the stakes and the extent of the virus. Statistics are particularly helpful for policymakers and epidemiologists who end up making decisions based on their reporting. However, statistics can be a double-edged sword. Just like how strong rhetoric can cause anxiety and fear, statistics can have a similar effect. Without context, statistics may add to our anxiety. It is better to heed warnings from experts based on their interpretation of the numbers, rather than taking in “naked” statistics.


Naive Optimism

Amidst stories that seem so dreadful, it is understandable that there is a demand for positive news. Several organizations are capitalizing on the search for hope. Some of the most viral of these are fake, non-medically authorized home cures — including the now-debunked “garlic water” cure. Some of these cures are innocuous and do not cause much harm, but others can be quite harmful. It is best to avoid them in general. On the more credible side, reports on how the number of mild coronavirus cases and the plethora of ways to reduce the spread are causes for consolation. However, it does not absolve or lessen our responsibilities to social distance and practice good hygiene. Trump, unfortunately, did not show prudence when he said he expected the country to be more opened up by Easter and then extended social distancing guidelines through the end of April. Though optimistic, we still need to remain in place.


Fear-Fueled Behavior

On the opposite end of the positivity spectrum, fear and pessimism because of the news have caused a lot of irrational decisions. Walk into any grocery store and it is evident that many are panic buying. We should be prepared, but panic buying is detrimental to others. In Britain, panic-buying was so prevalent that the government had to urge responsible shopping— there was an estimated £1.2 billion of excess food being hoarded. Without active awareness of how emotions can affect our decisions, news stories can cause us to act irrationally and even bring harm to ourselves and others.

The bottom line is that everyone should be cautious and aware of how emotionally sensitive stories affect their behavior. We shouldn’t panic because of negative news stories, but nor should we slack social distancing or good hygiene because of positive news. General Stonewall Jackson puts it succinctly: Never take counsel of your fears.


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Editor’s note: Signs and symptoms of COVID-19 include fever, dry cough, tiredness and shortness of breath. These symptoms are believed to occur between two and 14 days after a person is exposed to the disease. If you have these symptoms and have recently come into contact with a person who is known to have COVID-19, or if you have recently traveled to an area with community spread of the disease, you should call your doctor. Areas with community spread of COVID-19 are believed to include China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and Seattle. If you do not have a doctor who you visit regularly, please call the Utah Coronavirus Information Line at 1-800-456-7707 or the University of Utah Health hotline at 801-587-0712. Do not go to a healthcare facility without first making arrangements to do so.