Don't get caught up in the fear and panic spreading across the globe.
While I don’t normally watch the news, I caught a few clips of people making runs on stores for water and supplies due to the news on the coronavirus. I couldn’t help but wonder, why the panic? I understand when it happens right before a looming hurricane, for example, because stores could be wiped off the planet and water or electrical systems could be down for days, weeks or even months. But for a virus?
I forgot about it until yesterday, when I did my weekly shopping. As I approached the cleaning supplies section of Target, I was dumbfounded. Half of the shelves were empty. Not a drop of disinfectant or bleach. That made me wonder if a hundred people each bought one bottle or can, or if two or three came in and filled their carts to the brim. Sad thoughts of someone barricading themselves in their home surrounded by a mountain of Clorox came to mind as did more humorous thoughts of people who never clean their homes furiously scrubbing years of grime from the bathtub and needing lots of bleach. Fortunately, I was just looking for an empty spray bottle and those were still available.
I understand we may be facing a pandemic, but I’m wondering of people don’t understand what a pandemic is. Right now, the coronavirus, known as COVID-19, is an epidemic, which simply means that there’s been a sudden increase in the number of cases of a disease beyond what would be normally expected. We have these frequently with various strains of the flu. What pushes an epidemic over to a pandemic is simply that a pandemic has a larger reach, and meets three criteria: it has sustained person-to-person spread; it causes illness, including death; and it affects a large number of people with a worldwide spread. While the current virus is in about 70 countries, it has not spread world-wide yet, so it’s still an epidemic.
Regardless of what we call it, the vast majority of people who do get the virus will experience flu-like symptoms and get well. This particular strain is dangerous for the very young and for older people, who should take extra precautions, but otherwise, this is just a really big case of a flu. Since there is no vaccine and won’t be for at least a year, people should wash their hands regularly, for at least 20 seconds each time, use hand sanitizer if you’re out and about and can’t wash your hands after touching door knobs or railings, etc., and stay home from work or school if you’re sick. This is the best way to slow down the spread of the disease.
As it became clear that the virus was going to spread, our staff had a discussion as to what the point would be when we would stop conducting workshops. We frequently do workshops in hospitals, so I felt we needed to address this from a public health perspective, as we could be over-exposing ourselves due to our work environment without the protection that health workers have. I certainly don’t want to get COVID-19, nor do I want to get any kind of flu, and there is no reason for my staff to be at risk unnecessarily. We made our decision based on their knowledge, since they have master’s in public health and went back to work.
While standing in Target looking at those empty shelves yesterday, I noticed my body contracting and an unpleasant feeling in my gut. Until that moment, I hadn’t felt distressed about the epidemic. When I returned home, I reflected on what that reaction was standing in the store. I realized that it isn’t the flu that scares me, it’s people’s reaction to the situation. I feel that same distress when I see news of people pushing and shoving each other on Black Friday, trying to get a good deal on a toy. It creates a disruption in my belief that the world is a safe place. I still believe that but it can only remain a safe place if we don’t allow our egos and stress response to take over.
Fear is a funny thing. When it hits, if we’re not mindful, we become literally mindless because the brain activates the sympathetic system, which is fight, flight or freeze. Once we’re flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, the biological signature of fear moves the blood flow from our brains and out to our limbs so that we can fight or run, meaning we have less capacity to actually think. We can’t fight a virus and we can’t run from it. We can use our cognitive abilities to think through the best course of action, but only if we’ve avoided the flood of stress hormones caused by fear and panic.
In circumstances like this, it’s very beneficial to be mindful. There’s no need to go into fight or flight mode. Not only will that not serve you well, but the way we get through an emergency best is to cooperate with each other and the systems that are in place to keep us safe. Bottled water is not going to help you avoid the virus and it’s avoiding the virus that we should all be focused on. Avoiding it for ourselves and not spreading it to others.
There’s nothing wrong with sanitizing your living or work space, but no one needs 20 bottles of bleach to do that. Many people are more conscientious about sanitizing their homes during flu season. It’s common sense. Likewise with going out to public events. I commend the organizers of events for cancelling or postponing those events right now, since cramming thousands of people tightly into an arena is a breeding ground for spreading the virus. Many companies that are already set up for telecommuting are utilizing their systems and having staff work from home, further reducing the risk of spreading the virus. And many school systems are closing for a couple of weeks to slow down the spread, which is a good decision. Yet some see these actions as cause for panic. If everything is closing, it must be the end of the world. It’s not. It’s pre-emptive and for our safety and protection. It’s the only way we might prevent this epidemic from becoming a pandemic. And don’t forget that those words themselves are part of the problem. They sound scary, but they’re just describing a geographic magnitude, not the symptoms of the flu.
I’m not trying to downplay the serious health risks of catching Covid 19. People have and will continue to die from it and of course that’s terrible. But we die from the regular flu in addition to many other causes every day. I am trying to help us focus on the fact that panicking about it only increases our risk to ourselves and others.
As our world becomes more crowded with both humans and animals, these types of events are only going to increase. Instead of defaulting to chicken-little behavior, a better response may be to simply calm down, find out what actions the CDC or WHO recommend, and follow that advice. For example, the H1N1 pandemic of 2009, better known as the swine flu, was particularly dangerous for people under 65. So those folks should have taken extra precautions to avoid getting that flu and spreading it to others. The swine flu is now a common strain of the flu we see every season. COVID-19 is particularly dangerous for people over 65, so they should be extra cautious. But this flu, too, will simply be added to the hundreds of strains of flu that we will continue to see every flu season once it passes through the epidemic or pandemic stages of its development. We have the knowledge available to us as to how to respond. That does not include hoarding bottled water, hand sanitizer and face masks.
And on the subject of face masks, it’s very important that we consider the greater good. Most of the general population will not benefit from wearing a face mask to avoid getting the flu. Regular face masks won’t work and the N95 respirators, which may be effective, are important for health workers and others who are continuously exposed to sick people. The average citizen doesn’t know how to properly wear them, which is the first problem, and don’t consider how challenging it is to breathe through them for any extended period of time. By hoarding these masks, we’re creating shortages for the very people who need them and are trying to help us. Breathing through these masks is difficult and could lead to respiratory problems for some. They’re also very claustrophobic and hot, making them uncomfortable. If this flu spreads beyond a certain point, the CDC or the WHO may in fact recommend that we use them, but in the meantime, our best contribution to slowing down the spread of the virus is to thoroughly wash our hands, avoid touching our faces, avoid people who are already sick and using common sense, including making sure that health workers have the supplies and equipment needed to take care of us if we get sick.
If you’re already using it, think of hand sanitizer as a temporary fix until you can wash your hands thoroughly. If you’re purchasing hand sanitizer, it should be at least 60% alcohol to be effective. And you need to apply liberally and allow it to dry. Most people end up wiping it off by drying their hands, which wipes away the alcohol that is meant to kill the germs. There have been reports of people drinking hand sanitizer, thinking they can sanitize their insides. This is not only mindless, but extremely dangerous, as it can create alcohol poisoning. And of course, you can’t sanitize your insides!
You don’t need to pay $100 for a bottle of hand sanitizer if you don’t currently have one (and I won’t get started on those trying to profit from the virus). Alcohol-based hand sanitizers can quickly reduce the number of microbes on hands in some situations, but sanitizers do not eliminate all types of germs. It is much more effective to wash your hands with soap and water. Soap doesn’t kill the germs, but it will remove dirt, soil, grease and other substances that may allow germs to hang on easier. If there’s no soap, it’s no problem. The friction of rubbing your hands together under water will greatly reduce the microbes on your hands, hence the 20 second rule. Scrub those puppies to get rid of germs.
You can also make your own sanitizer by using essential oils. For example, tea tree oil is anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial, so you can mix it with a base oil like jojoba or even olive oil and apply to the skin (you cannot apply it directly to your skin – it has to be mixed with a base oil). You can also make a spray of essential oil mixed with vinegar or water, shake well, and spray on your hands. Again, it’s important to let them air dry – don’t wipe it off. You can also use the spray at home on doorknobs, countertops or other surfaces that are frequently touched.
We can take a deep breath, wash our hands, stay home if sick and avoid crowded events. There’s one more thing we can do. Stop getting our information from the media, whether it be television, social media or the internet in general. Sensationalized information sells, so consider the source. If someone can benefit in any way from hysteria by gaining advertisers, likes or followers, that’s not a good source for valid information. If you want factual information on the spread of the virus, go to a reliable source, like the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the Mayo Clinic or John Hopkins University websites for information on COVID-19 or any other public health issues.
Stop getting our information from the media, whether it be television, social media or the internet in general. Sensationalized information sells, so consider the source.
We face many challenges in life, there are many diseases that can cause death, and there are endless crises from poverty to community violence to war that may disrupt our lives and harm our well-being. But that’s not the majority of life. If we take responsibility for our own actions, support our families, neighbors and friends, and remain mindful when these types of events occur, we can see that overall, we have much more to be grateful for and enjoy in life than we do to fear. By being collaborative and cooperative, we can solve big problems. And we can avoid these smaller problems by mindfully practicing simple common sense.
If you’re not sick, there’s no need to panic. If you get sick, there’s no need to panic. The vast majority of people will recover. If you’re over 65, be extra cautious, but don’t live in fear all day long every day. That will weaken your immune system. Practice good hygiene and don’t expose yourself to someone else who may be sick. There’s not anything much simpler than to wash our hands. And that’s a good habit to practice all of the time, not just during an epidemic. Be mindful of your actions, your state of mind and your fear-based thoughts. If we called this the flu instead of COVID-19, you’d think it was normal. Guess what? It’s a flu.
Every minute we spend mindlessly panicking or sitting in a puddle of fear, we’re losing minutes that could be spent in a joyful state of being. We’re reducing our state of well-being. We’re actually increasing our odds of catching something, even if it’s not this flu, because remaining in a state of stress does weaken our immune systems. So, relax. Be grateful for what you have. Enjoy life.
Let’s close today with a moment to relax followed by a positive affirmation.
Take in a deep breath through the nose and hold it for a count of 4. Now slowly release the breath through the mouth.
Remember, you tell your brain what to focus on. Do you really want to focus on getting sick?
Stop sending that message to the brain and instead, repeat this affirmation any time you feel anxious about the current situation:
“Thank you for my perfect health.”