Viral Fear — A Side Effect of Covid-19

Clinton Hill, Brooklyn

My quarantine routine involves me taking my dog for a walk at 6:30 PM everyday. As we make our way through the picturesque tree lined brownstone neighborhood of Clinton Hill, we avoid people by crossing the street to make sure “social distance” is maintained.

At 7 PM sharp, the city sound erupts in loud cheer. Faceless people join in unison, clapping and screaming, banging pots and pans, blasting loud music out of their windows, all in applause of the doctors, nurses, delivery people, the police and other “frontline” workers who have kept the city afloat in the midst of a pandemic.

Months have gone by now, and the inflow of patients in New York City hospitals has dropped to a trickle. The spread of the virus has been stymied to a degree and the curve has been flattened. But we are told we are still not out of the woods.

Everyone walks around in masks reminding you of this fact and the cheering still continues while hospital beds lie vacant and the city remains largely shut, out of fear of another peak.

The question of lives versus livelihoods is now at the center of the discussion as the country and the city plans to reopen. Small and large businesses are on the brink with many filing for bankruptcy. The rate of unemployment is at an all time high and the prospects of an uncertain future is making people even more edgy.

While Wall Street is riding high on optimism based on glimmers of a return to business, the damage done to the economy by some estimates, is expected to last a decade.

While the virus is still circulating and taking its toll there is another virus that is simultaneously gripping many. The virus of “fear”. And this one may prove even more deadly if not dealt with equal seriousness.

When it all started the fear was heightened and amplified. Watching the daily global Covid-19 death toll ticker website, had become an obsession. Every person, surface and space was suspect. News reports made you feel the virus was everywhere, on your door handle, in the sky and in the wind. I was wearing gloves all the time, had stopped using toilet paper and Purel and Clorox had become my lord and savior.

It felt as though the virus was lurking waiting for that careless moment to pounce. Paranoia was just round the corner even though my intelligence was asking me to be prudent.

In ten weeks the fear has subsided significantly for me. For others it seems to have gotten worse.

We are surrounded by bacteria and viruses in ways we seldom stop to think about. There is a close connection between microbes and humans. Experts believe about half of all human DNA originated from viruses that infected and embedded their nucleic acid in our ancestors’ egg and sperm cells.

Microbes occupy all of our body surfaces, including the skin, gut, and mucous membranes. In fact, our bodies contain at least 10 times more bacterial cells than human ones, blurring the line between where microbes end and humans begin.

Microbes in the human gastrointestinal tract alone comprise of at least 10 trillion, representing more than 1,000 species, which are thought to prevent the gut from being colonized by disease-causing organisms. Microbes synthesize vitamins, break down food and stimulate our immune systems.

In many cases, microbes derive benefits without harming us; in other cases, both host and microbe benefit. And though some microbes make us sick and even kill us, as in the case of Covid-19, in the long run they have a shared interest in our survival.

The human immune system is designed to keep us safe from foreign invaders. As in the case of Covid-19, a vast majority of people do recover as their immune system does what it is designed to do. But for others, like with any other disease, if the immune system is compromised by underlying factors, then the outcome can be dire.

Risk is an inherent and integral part of living. If “fear” of a sneeze or a delivered package makes us develop an obsessive compulsive disorder, partly fueled by a constant barrage of information and misinformation, then we might as well accept defeat.

In reality, we are in the early stages of learning about this virus and how it behaves. Yet a result from any new study alarms people in the way it is announced in the media, and in some instances gives false hope.

But what everyone in the scientific community agree on, is that the only way we can possibly think of returning to a pre-Covid state of mind, is by developing a full proof vaccine - which despite all positive estimates is months if not years away. And then vaccinating planet earth, which will be a long, monumental and laborious task in itself.

Therefore the only viable solution in the short term is to develop herd immunity or hope and pray that the virus runs its course and becomes manageable like its predecessors SARS and MERS.

Everyone agrees that this virus will become endemic, and we will have to calibrate risk and learn to live with it, or stop living all together out of fear of contracting it.

The approach most nations took to deal with the virus was a blunt one. As the death toll began to overwhelm fragile healthcare systems and models projected deaths in astronomical numbers. It was the only option seen to contain the spread, as nothing else was planned or prepared for. Had there had been an early globally coordinated response, maybe shutdowns could have been avoided.

One nation, Sweden, sought to take a more nuanced path. They opted for a partial shutdown putting the mental health of their children front and center. They took a risk assessment as data showed children were least susceptible to the virus.

So they kept their lower grade schools open and protected the more vulnerable and asked the rest to practice social distancing and other preventative measures. Being a small and sparse nation they took a bet on herd immunity. They concluded, a lockdown was an easy thing to do, but coming out of it would prove much more challenging, as most nations are experiencing at this moment.

The lack of any unified approach, preparation and risk assessment has made America acquire the dubious distinction of a nation with the world’s most Covid-19 deaths.

With more than 100,000 dead and counting, one of the world’s wealthiest nation thoroughly botched its response to a pandemic that was predicted for years by experts in the private sector and within the establishment.

And then the worst crisis to hit America was met by the most inept administration in disarray.

Up until the virus, Donald Trump had only dealt with crises that he had engineered himself. But when confronted with an external one such as a pandemic, his inability to do what was necessary, before and during, based on scientific advise and sound strategy exposed his utter lack of leadership. Even though he was quick to frame a public health crisis as a “war against an invisible enemy”, he pretty much laid down his defenses even before the war began in earnest.

Further the death toll and the rate of infection in America exposed weaknesses in the American way of living. From a poor healthcare system, the lack of preparedness, inequality, poverty to the fragile health of its population, the virus laid bare all that is wrong with this country and that which has been debated election after election but never mended.

Now as America begins to open its economy state by state, the chaos is more blaring than ever. The lack of a unified approach sows doubt in a sustainable and safe recovery. Due to a lack of planning once again the pendulum continues to swing between extremes. A lack of consistent messaging coupled with alarmist media headlines makes people more fearful than they need to be.

Being an election year the pandemic has also become a flashpoint for politics, further exacerbating the situation causing lives to be lost and livelihoods decimated.

On a phone conversation with my 88 year old father who lives in India, I asked if he had ever witnessed a moment like this in his lifetime in a poor country like his. He could not recall an unconditional halt to life he was experiencing, even though quarantines were common during outbreaks.

But then I wondered, small pox, measles and polio were common when he was a child. Vaccines were a relatively new invention. Other kinds of waterborne seasonal tropical epidemics like cholera, jaundice, malaria etc. were and are common. People died like flies, from all sorts of endemic ailments. Sure Covid-19 is far more contagious and there is no undermining this fact, but what was different then?

What did not exist was the Internet, Smart Phones, Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, Cable Television and a non-stop barrage of information warping the whole world right in front of ones eyes day in and day out.

If we are to conquer Covid-19, we would have to conquer our fears first and then use our intelligence and civic sense to keep ourselves and others safe.

Anand Kamalakar is a Brooklyn based documentary film director, producer and editor. His latest film SALAM can now be seen on Netflix.

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