Would you rather panic or rely on facts?

Fomenting nationwide panic will not solve anything and never has. The rising levels of alarm and fear can only lead to making a possibly risky situation worse

As a country we seem to love whipping ourselves into a good old panic; well at least some people do. And yet present them with facts on how to avoid the potential spread of the Coronavirus, and they cheerfully ignore them.

One of the first pieces of advice was to avoid crowded places, and yet everyone still flocked to be among the throngs at Carnival, while they raided the supermarkets where there were even more crowds. The notices by WHO which have been circulated by our own Health Department, that the best thing you can do is to wash your hands as often as possible barely got a few shares and likes. Yet, misinformation, hysteria and downright fake news went viral. It seems as if rational and sensible common sense is not as thrilling as scaring ourselves silly about a doomsday end of the world scenario.

I’m not saying the Coronavirus is not serious. However, fomenting nationwide panic will not solve anything and never has. The rising levels of alarm and fear can only lead to making a possibly risky situation worse.

I half-joked about a possible stampede at the supermarkets, and sure enough, as if on cue, there many people went, stocking up on what they consider essentials, some of which were very mystifying indeed. I can only assume that they did so because they were keeping tabs on what was happening in neighbouring Italy, where several major Northern regions are on lockdown after an outbreak of the virus was reported. This prompted a run on the supermarkets in Milan and, because Malta depends heavily on imports, the same happened here.

Beppe Sala, Milan’s mayor pointed out that, “rather than dashing to the supermarkets to grab food, perhaps we should spend time looking after the most vulnerable, such as old people, who are particularly at risk.” But even this latter observation has caused mounting anxiety with many elderly people automatically assuming they are going to die. The truth is that even with the usual seasonal flu, it is always the elderly who are more susceptible, especially those whose immune systems are already weak due to chronic illness.

I understand why people with young children may feel the need to stock up on certain items, but as many have pointed out, by clearing the supermarket shelves in one day, they are the ones who have created a real shortage for others. This reminds me of when there is a rumour that the petrol stations are going to go on strike, leading people to fear a fuel shortage. So the crazy queues start with drivers going to fill up their tanks, and even taking jerry cans with them to store up on extra fuel….and bingo. A fuel shortage ensues. The selfishness and the “I’m all right f*** you Jack” mindset is very real.

What definitely has not helped in this unsettling scenario is social media. A particular FB group which was set up to ostensibly keep us updated has only led to some very bizarre, questionable posts by the person who created it which have only succeeded in creating more panic. Some of the members’ questions are also all over the place, pointing to a segment of the population which is woefully incapable (or too lazy) to look up information from the correct, reliable sources but relies on asking each other instead. Who cares what experts and medical professionals say as long as a complete stranger on FB gives you an answer which may or may not be correct? And I love the way many people start their comment with “I believe…” and proceed to spout their opinion as if it were an undisputed fact.

More crucially, it is highly irresponsible for the person administering this group, which now numbers over 30k people, to be acting as some self-appointed expert who claims to be the only one giving people the true picture. I do not see what is being achieved by terrorising people into behaving as if they were being chased by zombies. “Those that are aware and prepared have the highest chance of survival” reads one post. Seriously? As we know, it takes very little to trigger a mass hysterical reaction especially if the public feels the authorities are not giving them enough information.

Meanwhile, and perhaps inevitably, there is the other end of the spectrum. The dark humour and memes have been coming in thick and fast which is not surprising when one reads some of the downright laughable questions being asked and answered on FB (you know, that great font of wisdom). Obviously, this is not a laughing matter, but different people handle a crisis differently, and sometimes jokes are the best coping mechanism.

But really, the best way to cope is to only rely on official information rather than what some random person “thinks” or “believes”. Every news outlet must also exercise extreme caution and responsibility. Foreign news channels all seem to be in the same boat, trying to strike the right balance, as they try to quell people’s fears about this new strain of virus. Locally, I was bemused when I read that the authorities have not been issuing information when, in fact, they have. However, it seems that people only read the news which makes it to their personal newsfeed, and they will not bother to search for information themselves on any news portals, or the Health department’s website. Now that it has hit Italy, and specific directives are being issued, there are still complaints. On the other hand, it is very telling that there is such a mistrust of the Government these days that some prefer to rely on totally unchecked rumours, and are perfectly happy to be swept away by scaremongering tactics.

Personally, I would rather believe someone like Prof. Michael Borg, an expert in infection control who said there is no need to wear masks or stock up on food. Speaking to Malta Today he said, “The amount of fake news on social media about this is phenomenal. In the evening, I either start laughing or start crying. There’s a difference between being vigilant and being afraid. This is a new virus but comments on social media boards are way off. There is nobody infected yet and Malta is taking all the precautions necessary.”

Now if only people were similarly concerned by the polluted air we breathe, the lack of exercise and the unhealthy processed food we ingest, which account for so much chronic illness and so many more fatalities every year.

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