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Panicking about coronavirus will save lives

March 3, 2020 - 11:17am

Cass Sunstein, Harvard Professor and ‘nudge theorist’, has a piece on Bloomberg urging us not to panic:

At this stage, no one can specify the magnitude of the threat from the coronavirus. But one thing is clear: A lot of people are more scared than they have any reason to be. They have an exaggerated sense of their own personal risk
- Cass Sunstein, Bloomberg

But hang on, Prof, if “no one can specify the magnitude of the threat” then how can you say that people have an “exaggerated sense of their own personal risk”? Given the highly uncertain, but potentially extreme and multiplicative risks of new infectious diseases, over-reacting to pandemics is entirely rational.

In a series of tweets, the demographer Lyman Stone pushes back against the anti-panickers:

“I think we’ve gone WAY overboard telling people ‘don’t panic.’

“That worm of a feeling in your head saying, ‘omg we’re gonna die we’re gonna die we’re gonna die’ is a good thing.

We should cultivate and encourage it. “Not to induce panic behaviors, but to motivate compliance.”

- Lyman Stone

I think that’s right. The things we need to do to slow down the rate of infection require a change of deeply ingrained habits across entire population.

A mass behavioural shift like washing our hands more frequently and thoroughly won’t happen because it is the logical thing to do but out of a compelling emotional impulse. Widespread fear is just what we need right now.

Stone also explains why it’s so important that we do minimise the rate of infection. We probably can’t stop the disease in its tracks, but by holding down the number of people with full-blown symptoms at any one time we give the healthcare system a chance of coping. If our hospitals are overwhelmed then people will die that might have been saved.

Remember that we don’t have to drive the infection rate down to zero to make a big difference. The point is succinctly made in a tweet from Merryn Somerset Webb, Editor-in-Chief of MoneyWeek:

“36 cases. 30% growth a day. 1m cases in 40 days. Cut that to 15% and its only 8,385. Worth doing a lot of hand washing.”

If fear is what it takes, then so be it.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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