A False Dichotomy Gone Viral

We’re entering a critical moment in the global drama that is Covid-19. Several states have started opening for business, with others soon to follow. In my own state of New Mexico, we’re in what’s being called a preparation phase in hopes of starting phase 1 after May 15. Honestly, every time I hear someone say, “preparation phase” my mind goes back to the scene in Austin Powers where Dr. Evil proudly announces his sinister plan to take over the world as “Preparation H!”hkzdd

My middle school snickering aside, the discussions and debates about re-opening the economy are bringing what I believe to be a false dichotomy to the surface. On the one hand, are those who celebrate the re-opening, but claim the shutdown was never necessary because Covid-19 is not dangerous or is altogether a hoax. On the other hand are those who believe Covid-19 to be particularly deadly, that the quarantine should remain in place and more tightly enforced, and oppose the re-opening, assuming it indicates that profits are valued over people. I’m concerned because of the flaws present in both extremes, and how each extreme is presented as the only alternative for citizens to consider. There can be both confidence and caution in how we respond to Covid-19. There can be measures to protect the health of both people and profits as businesses, workplaces, schools, churches, and health care centers provide goods and services to communities and strength to the economy.

So, I don’t believe any of us should settle for the false dichotomy between denying the danger of Covid-19 and promoting panic over Covid-19. Let’s consider just a few issues in each view that might help move us all toward a more helpful and realistic center.

 The Downside of Downplaying Covid-19

Minimizing or denying the danger of Covid-19 is usually accompanied by the spread of information from voices whose advice and analyses run counter to the data from sources like the National Institutes of Health, the World Health Organization, The U.S. Surgeon General, The Centers for Disease Control, or the Covid-19 Task Force. Some of the counter-information comes from supposed “experts” from the medical community, which dispute and even discourage citizens from practicing social distancing, staying home, wearing masks, or otherwise taking measures to help slow the spread of Covid-19.

h7yuzjlk91f31Not all Doctors are the Same – The meme here is one that always gives me a chuckle, but it illustrates an important point. While some of the contrasting perspectives may come from Doctors, this does not make that Doctor qualified in the field of medicine relevant to Covid-19. You and I wouldn’t go to a podiatrist for treatment of a sinus infection or a dentist for psychiatric therapy. It’s important to understand that “Dr.” in front of a name, or “M.D./D.O.” after a name does not an expert in virology or infectious diseases make.

Look for Verification – Furthermore, even an expert in a relevant field is bound to specific processes before making claims. Claims are tested repeatedly, results studied, findings submitted for peer-review, peer-reviewed studies are adjusted or at times retracted, with the final report being published in a reputable journal. This process allows for fact-checking, revisions, corrections, cross-referencing, and verification. When an “expert” makes claims that have neither been tested nor submitted for peer-review, it’s an action that is at best unprofessional and at worst unethical and potentially dangerous. Check the sources. Are they experts in the field? If so, have their claims been tested and peer-reviewed? If not, they’re not doing what real experts do.

On the fringe of this perspective are claims that the virus is a hoax, among other non-verifiable suggestions. A good standard practice here is to check the sources of such claims. If the only verification is other non-qualified people making un-verified claims, it’s best to hit the delete button.

Moving Toward the Center – Covid-19 is a dangerous virus due to its highly contagious nature, and how many hosts are asymptomatic. It’s the number of people showing no symptoms and unknowingly passing it on to people more vulnerable to it, which makes wearing masks a good idea. No, masks won’t keep you from getting the virus, but they help keep YOU from spreading it. The mask is a barrier that keeps your own droplets contained. Wearing a mask is not an attack on your independence; it’s an act of good neighboring.

The Problem with Panic over Covid-19

Treating Covid-19 as a doomsday scenario is just as unhelpful and inaccurate as downplaying the virus’s ability to harm. Panic over the virus can make one even more susceptible to it.

Humans have incredibly complex and effective bodily systems for fighting off sickness and disease, as well as an amazing alarm system helps us respond to threats. These systems can grow in strength and adapt as we learn how to navigate the dangers around us. Problems arise when our alarm system is always on. It’s a good system, but it takes a lot of energy and needs to recharge. When we’re constantly amped up due to fear and panic, our ability to fight off sickness is compromised.

So how can we turn off the alarm system and respond to the concerns of Covid-19 in both a cautious and confident way?

Recognize and Minimize Moral Panic – Covid-19 has become the catalyst for what criminal psychologists call Moral Panic. Writer, blogger, and researcher, Kerry Baldwin, describes Moral Panic as “a useful tool by those with power to exploit fear or even create fear in a large group of people. It takes advantage of a human defense mechanism we use in life-threatening situations.” This panic has arisen primarily due to exaggerated media reporting and overreaching reactions by government officials that have fueled hysteria, as seen in hoarding toilet paper and meat, even while they call for citizens to buy responsibly. 5e6d4cecc0514.image

Moral Panic also emphasizes the identification of a “folk devil,” a person, group, or some other entity whom the panicked population is directed to see as a threat. Media outlets and Social Media platforms are successfully pitting those who can and want to work against those who want to and should stay home, making each extreme even more extreme as each side sees the other as a folk devil. Don’t fall for it. Contrary to all sides pointing the finger at each other, this virus caught us all flat-footed. We weren’t paying attention, and we weren’t adequately prepared. Don’t let panic add to a blame game that makes everyone lose.

Demand Leadership over Reactionship – Frustration has fueled fear due to the government’s arbitrary and inconsistent determination of essential and non-essential entities. Big box stores are left open while many of the same products are available through local vendors who’ve been forced to close their doors. The fewer options create more demand, resulting in panic buying and the appearance of shortages. This is unnecessary, since local businesses could provide goods and spread out the demand.

Government overreach is seen in acts like Michigan’s governor restricting the sale of seeds, unnecessary restriction of medical procedures, placing thousands of medical personnel on furlough while hospitals operate at 25% capacity, or New Mexico’s governor cutting off access to and from an entire town. These are reactionary decisions that have added to the panic and put forth another false choice that we must choose between health and economic stability. Leadership of, by, and for the people should find a way to accomplish both. As a friend of mine said, “You can lead through this crisis or react through it. The future belongs to the leaders.”

Dare to learn how bad it is, really. – What about the health of owners and employees? Glad you asked. While denying the danger of Covid-19 is a bad idea, what if its real danger has blown out of proportion? Going back to the concept of moral panic, Scott Bonn writes, “Moral panic includes an exaggeration of certain events by enhancing the empirical criteria such as the number of individuals involved, the level and extent of violence, and the amount of damage caused.”

It’s worth noting the difference between the number of actual deaths from Covid-19, and the catastrophic projections that incited so much fear. Projected deaths were adjusted from 200,000 to around 60,000, with the current death toll at 70,990 as of today. When you dig into the numbers, however, there’s more to the story. In the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) most recent report, deaths from Covid-19 exclusively total 37,308. Deaths from pneumonia total 64,382, and deaths from influenza number 5,846. Deaths from a combination of Covid-19 and Pneumonia reached 16,564.  What we’re seeing is that Covid-19 on its own is deadly to be sure but falls within the threshold of a typical cold/flu season. The big number is reached by counting deaths from patients with Covid-19 alone, as well as patients with underlying conditions who die from Covid-19 complications as if they died from Covid-19 alone. One wonders if we would have even noticed Covid-19 if not for the hype from politicians and the media.

Moving Toward the Center – While Covid-19 is highly contagious and potentially deadly, its threat is most dangerous to those with underlying conditions that compromise their immune and respiratory systems. It should be taken seriously but does not warrant the exaggerated reporting by the media and the reactionary over-reach by the government. These actions may have been carried out to “flatten the curve,” but they succeeded more in planting seeds of fear and panic, the fruits of which have placed unhealthy and unnecessary stress on people both sick and well, families, small businesses, economic stability, our health care system and its personnel, first responders, teachers and students, frontline workers, and our community bonds.

Moving to the center is not a call for dialogue to cease, or one to exchange their solid best-acoustic-guitar-strings-770x578convictions for a mushy middle. This is a call to move from passionate extremes to a principled center. Yes, there will be some tension, but that’s why this move is so important. On a guitar, the string is attached to two distant fixtures. Tension increases as the string tightens, reaching its desired tuning note. There’s energy in that tension, there’s creative innovation, and life in that tension. The music, the melody, and harmonies are made in that tension.

Let’s make some healing music out of this tense time.



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