There are some words that really get people all riled up. “Pandemic” is one of them. While the technical definition of pandemic is a worldwide epidemic, regardless of severity, a lot of people associate the word with some sort of unmitigated disaster.
I don’t blame people for thinking that way. After all, most of us are told the story of the 1918 Spanish Influenza pandemic that killed millions around the world. We also hear of other pandemics that have done a number on the human populations, like the Black Death (Yersinia pestis) and the still ongoing pandemic of HIV/AIDS.
There was even some doctor teaching out in California who once got all snippy with me because he said that we (epidemiologists) should not be using the term “pandemic” when not a lot of people die. (And then said that I was salty for not being a doctor — in 2009 — and not having any kind of authority to correct him.) He wanted some other term to be used, but he fell short of actually suggesting something that mean “a worldwide epidemic.”
This latest pandemic of coronavirus is different from the last one (2009 H1N1 influenza) because social media has become such an enormous source of information — and misinformation — for so many people. Too many people are getting their news from other people who have zero knowledge of journalism, let alone science. So you end up with people doing some very “interesting” things.
First, they came for the water. I went to the store a couple of weeks ago, and they were already out of bottled water. One of the employees said that a lot of people had shown up early to buy up every case and container of drinking water they could find. Interestingly, and perhaps showing people’s lack of science knowledge, they left the distilled water behind. Distilled water is purified water and perfectly safe to drink. For some reason, according to the employee, people were not buying it because they thought they could not drink it.
Then they came for the toilet paper. I keep seeing news articles and videos of people fighting each other to buy up extra toilet paper. This one really puzzles me. I mean, it’s a joke that people will buy bread, milk and toilet paper before a big snowstorm, but they are doing this at this time because… Because they’re going to be pooping a lot at home if they have to stay home for a couple of weeks?
People are at such a panic that the stock market is taking a hit. Because so many coronavirus cases have been on cruise ships and in people traveling abroad, the touring industry is taking a hit. Because all those ships and all those planes are not using as much fuel, the oil industry is taking a hit. And because people won’t gather at large events, the sports and entertainment industries are taking a hit.
All of this almost makes me want to take a hit.
Humans are animals. Not only that, they’re also animals who run in packs. If one starts running in one direction, the chances are that others will start going in the same direction. Before you know it, you’re facing a stampede. Only a few will stand aside and watch the show, sometimes to their own detriment. And even fewer will run in the other direction — towards danger — to see if there is something they can do to help stop what is making people afraid.
As people are running to buy toilet paper and hand sanitizer, others are running with them. As they run away from ships and planes where the disease is being spread, others are running with them. And as they run to the warm embrace of social media, others are running with them.
Me? I’m running in the other direction. Not only is it something I’ve always seem to do, it is also my job.
You can thank my mom for that.
René F. Najera, DrPH
I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
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