The first evidence of an alarming number of pneumonias in Wuhan, China, emerged in early January 2020. Since then, the epidemic has continued to spread across the globe, taking a toll on governments, health professionals and public opinion. It has also created a health shock without precedent in recent history and has caused a great deal of public concern.
It is because it is important to respond effectively to this sense of fear and to manage the crisis as closely as possible that we asked five experts to explain the phenomenon to us, each in their own field of research. Psychological, political or health perspectives that allow us to better understand the unprecedented ordeal we are going through.
"Uncertainty is the most powerful fuel of anxiety."
Antoine Pelissolo, Professor of Psychiatry
Fear is a normal reaction to danger; it helps guide our choices and actions by avoiding taking excessive risks to our health and even our lives. However, we know that all human beings do not have the same sensitivity to danger, some underestimate it and move forward no matter what the cost, others are much more withdrawn or even frequently paralyzed by fear.
This psychodiversity ofanxious emotion is partly genetically based, modulated by education and events in one's life. It ensures that the human species adapt to a changing environment, where there is a need for both leaders and adventurers who take risks, but also for cautious people who survive more easily in the event of great danger.
In the case of an epidemic such as the one linked to the coronavirus, we find this range of reactions to multiple danger signals: a potentially fatal disease, which can affect each of us without immediate visibility ("where is the enemy?"), which passes through channels closest to our intimacy (the air we breathe and contact with others), and which involves many unknowns since it is a new virus. Uncertainty is the most powerful fuel for anxiety.
For people vulnerable to fear, very strong, sometimes excessive, anxieties appear, especially when they reawaken old wounds, such as diseases or disasters suffered by themselves or others in the past. But some people are not afraid enough, and continue to engage in risky behaviour.
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Hence the importance and difficulty of information and recommendation, which cannot be formulated identically for everyone and must take account of all these different sensitivities.
"Just because people express emotions doesn't mean their judgments and actions are disconnected from reality."
Jeremy K. Ward, sociologist
"Scared"? Are we "afraid"? The problem with the term "fear" is that it conjures up images of people who are dominated by their emotions and end up making bad decisions because they are unable to process information rationally.
Collectively, fear becomes "panic," with everyone's erratic actions resulting in disorder, even chaos. "Avoiding" panic is therefore one of the watchwords of crisis management, particularly in France.
In pandemic management plans, there is the idea that the public can be relied upon to be responsible, able to deal rationally with the risk of an epidemic and to follow the necessary precautions to limit the risk of becoming infected.
But the feeling that the public can at any moment fall into panic is also quite widespread, the sum of rational individuals becoming a crowd driven by their emotions, by fear. To avoid this, the public must be "reassured", notably by giving the impression that the situation is under control and by insisting on certainties. But this vision is problematic: real cases of panic are extremely rare, even in the most extreme situations, such as fires in confined spaces, for example.
It is not because people express emotions that their judgments and actions are disconnected from reality. The "fears" expressed on forums and social networks and shopping carts filled to the brim are interpreted as collective panic, whereas they most often reflect the imperfect nature of scientific knowledge about the virus, official recommendations that cannot cover the full complexity of individual cases, and the crisis management preparedness of all the players involved, including supermarkets.
It is tempting to dismiss them as an expression of emotional overreaction. On the contrary, they reflect the existence of strong uncertainties that confront people with the difficulty of the choices they are being asked to make.
"The management of fear has become an almost permanent feature of political action."
Bruno Cautrès, political science researcher
Fear is a dimension of human and social life that is intimately linked to politics and power. An epidemic such as Covid-19 activates certain mechanisms, particularly in the political sphere. The latter can then have recourse to fear as a political system.
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In The Prince, Machiavelli defends the idea that for the power it is "better to be feared than loved". he nevertheless adds an essential precision:
"... but the prince who wishes to be feared must do so in such a way that, if he does not win affection, he does not attract hatred either. »
How to inspire fear or dread without being tyrannical, despotic, dictatorial? How can we create a form of consent to respect the authority feared?
The political exchange that is woven around the answer to this question - I agree to submit to authority both out of fear of its power and because it can protect me from even greater dangers and fears - is the very object of political analysis, one might even say. The legitimacy of power, the mechanisms of its legitimization, the consent to authority are, moreover, among the most essential areas of political analysis; they concern in one way or another the management of fear and dread.
In contemporary societies, other issues of fear management have taken hold. Technological advances, advances in science and knowledge and the acceleration of time have been, and still can be, a source of fear. The future often appears threatening and uncertain. The management of fear has thus become an almost permanent feature of political and public action: reassuring citizens, managing the precautionary principle but also not displaying one's own fears are fundamental elements in the exercise of power today.
"Our deepest beliefs in the virtues and inevitability of globalization are being shattered."
Laurent Bibard, philosopher
Asking the question "why is coronavirus so scary" is a possibility offered to those who are not yet suffering from it, at least not in a significant way. However, asking this question is not casual towards the sufferer: the more we understand how the crisis and the emotions it raises work, the better equipped we will be to get through it.
The coronavirus is so frightening to all humanity because the crisis it causes has a double-edged sword.
The pandemic first of all confronts us with scales of problems that are in principle immeasurable: the virus is infinitely small and, because it is exceptionally contagious, it threatens the whole world.
This crisis then fundamentally undermines a presupposition that we believe we have long since overcome but which, in our practices, has a hard time: we humans control everything - our environment, our decisions, our lives, even, as the "transhumanists" dream about, death itself.
The coronavirus is so frightening because it imposes itself at a speed exactly proportionate to the intensity of the exchanges and circulations to which we have now become accustomed at the global level. It is therefore at the very heart of our way of life that the microscopic and dazzling cause of gigantic contaminations is now nesting, undermining our most deeply rooted beliefs in the virtues andinevitability of globalization.
"Our societies have replaced great fears with the cravingthis compulsive hunger for disaster."
Patrick Zylberman, health historian
In front of the epidemic, we alternate terror and fascination, in a vertigo similar to that which we feel in front of the sacred. The images that populate the Apocalypse of John awaken the feeling of the hideous, the terrible, the repugnant in epidemics.
The plague heralds the imminent end. "The time is at hand" (John 1:3). Toads, snakes or worms - understand: mud, filth or demon -, Revelation provides an inexhaustible catalogue of metaphors for the plague. The illiterate also draw from the apocalyptic books of Revelation, which can be found on church walls and fairgrounds.
A century after the first wave of the Black Death (1348-1352), dances of death flourished on the walls of basilicas and cemeteries. The plague is gravelly death. Pope, emperor, nobles, ploughmen, monks, children: all of them broke.
In spite of the repeated epidemic debacle, when the incidence of infection is at its lowest, confidence in medicine and doctors returns and violence is reduced. Beliefs and attitudes follow a bipolar rhythm during the epidemic, with calm alternating with extreme agitation.
This "Gothic" epidemiology, still flourishing in the 1970s, is far away today. The epidemic was then conceived as a race to the abyss. But panic is rare. The explosion of rituals has a reassuring effect on populations. During the plague known as Justinian's plague (541-750), Parisians, converted to Christianity, would feel reassured when in procession the bronze images of Aesculapius (or Apollo Medicus), the little pagan god of medicine, were expelled from the city.
And so, what is the point of all this grandiloquence about fear? Instead of great fears, our societies in the West have substituted craving for the worst, this compulsive hunger for catastrophe, or rather for the image of it that lies dormant in the depths of any post-modern community.
Antoine PelissoloProfessor of Psychiatry, Inserm, Université Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne (UPEC); Bruno CautrèsPolitical Science Researcher, Sciences Po - USPC; Jeremy K. WardSociologist, postdoctoral researcher at the CNRS (GEMASS), Aix-Marseille University (AMU); Laurent BibardEdgar Morin Professor of Management, Edgar Morin Chair of Complexity, ESSEC and Patrick ZylbermanEmeritus Professor of Health History, Ecole des hautes études en santé publique, Centre Virchow-Villermé.., Graduate School of Public Health (EHESP)
Header image: Photo by KIM HONG-JI, REUTERS