We're all afraid

The clash of the fears

On March 11th 2020, Dr. Tedros Adahom Ghebreyesus, chairman of the WHO declared in his already historical speech that the outbreak of Sars-CoV-2 fits the definition of a pandemic. He also stated that this virus can be controlled and called upon governments to ‘take urgent and aggressive action’. Now, as the weeks unfold, we are starting to wonder if our ability to control this virus is a gift or a curse.

Photo by Nandhu Kumar


I am reading the book Factfulness by Hans Rosling. In chapter 4, The Fear Instinct, he discusses 3 primordial fears, as they have evolved along with us: the fear of physical harm, the fear of captivity and the fear of contamination. Many of our every day fears, rational or irrational, can be brought down to one or a combination of these three. Fear for snakes and spiders, for example, is in fact a fear for the invisible threat of the poison that comes out of them, meaning it is a fear of contamination. Fear for being stuck in the same office for the rest of your life, would then be a type of fear for captivity. And fear for being hit by a bus or drowning are fears for physical harm.

Rosling mentions these fears because they catalyze our interest for certain news stories. He illustrates it with terrorism, which intentionally combines the fear for physical harm and the fear of captivity for the purpose of drawing an endless amount of attention to or away from a certain issue. It works. Stories on terrorism often go viral. When reading chapter 4, of course, I immediately thought about what a nice shit show cocktail of these 3 primordial fears we have found ourselves in with this coronavirus.

Fear being a “fight or flight” type of motion, Rosling explains, decreases our ability to reason. We are quicker to choose a certain side in the discussion and take less time to carefully weigh the facts. In this crisis, I’ve felt that. We all have, because it’s a natural response. But that makes it all the more important to be aware of these fears. Society is being launched into a pressure cooker of crazy situations and out-of-the-box decision making. We are all trying to figure out which way to go in our own private lives and together as a society. For those who can grant ourselves some time to step back and think, it may be a good idea to look for our own fears and ask ourselves how they are pushing us to conclusions. If only for our peace of mind.

Which is why I am going to go through a number of fears I have encountered in my own life throughout the weeks, in the order in which they occur to me. I’ll give my quick personal assessment on how I perceive these fears, but I’m not implying that it’s complete. I’m guided in my assessments by big newspapers such as NYtimes and European equivalents, numerous scientific and anecdotal podcasts, the information by the WHO and national statistics of the individual countries, recent research published by universities and of course the quabbles between all kinds of camps on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube.

The stack of fears
I’ll start with the fear for the vaccine, or worse, compulsory vaccination. My mum brought it up about a month ago, and I see it come up here and there online. She told me that before I was born, a wrong vaccine caused her to feel illish for about half a year. At the moment, I’m involved in a Facebook discussion about it with some good friends, who are pointing out some examples in the past where vaccines didn’t work. Another very good friend has helped eradicate the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak with a novel vaccine in West Africa. I am very glad he did that. The fear for the vaccine itself clearly relates to the fear of contamination and physical harm. The compulsory part adds the element of a fear for captivity. Loss of autonomy over the own body. I also have a light version of that fear, though I do trust 21st century testing procedures are good enough to make them safe enough. Particularly in the unlikely scenario in which it is made mandatory, at least in my region in the world. I am not particularly fearful for a mandatory vaccine, but I would of course scrutinize its side effects.

Second: fear that there will never be a vaccine, or worse that this virus eludes immunity. Since I’m sure this virus is real, dangerous and far from over, this is one which scares me more. It illustrates the clusterfuck of fears going against each other in my case. It’s connected to the fear of captivity and physical harm, since having no vaccine or immunity would potentially mean being stuck in this situation for longer and having a bigger risk of catching and spreading the virus. As flawless vaccines are hard to acquire, it sounds unlikely to me that there will soon be one that could be used on a global scale. Which would mean more lockdown. Scary foresight.

That brings us to the fear for catching the virus itself. This too, is a clear case of fear of contamination and physical harm. The big, unknown and invisible and scary virus is out there and it is coming to get us. For young and healthy people like me, catching the virus is probably not much more scary than being bitten by a snake. But for older people and people with suboptimal health, men specifically, the fear seems justified. I’m not really afraid, but the thought does itch the scary-center in my brain. I do regularly have minor lung problems.

And how about the fear of being imprisoned in our own houses? It’s almost not possible to think of a clearer case of the fear of captivity. Some countries, such as China and the Southern European ones have taken the order to stay home very far. It’s not strange people there are frightened about being locked away. Particularly if they haven’t experienced this virus for themselves or don’t know anyone who has almost died from it. Here in the North, things have been better. Whenever it becomes too much, I am free to go for a long walk or bike ride. Or meet a friend outside and have a drink. It’s a way to mitigate that fear, perhaps. But also just a way to move and breathe some spring.

Next one: fear of passing the virus to another. Since my last post in early March, I think this fear has become much better felt and acted upon. I’m happy with that. The connection to one of the primordial fears is not very clear to me, and so far I haven’t seen many stories of this. Perhaps it relates to the fear of captivity, because it implies a loss of control over the consequences of your own actions. You don’t want to infect others, but do it anyway.

Another very real fear that is emerging: the fear of losing our livelihood. In a locked down capitalist society, not being able to work poses a real threat of losing the freedoms you acquired earlier. Your house, your luxury. Losing everything would lead, in part, to losing your autonomy, so this one quite clearly translates to the fear of captivity. If this lockdown lasts for very long, I too might lose my home. Many others would go before me, though, and for that reason I think it’s not likely to happen to me. I imagine others are more afraid of this, and rightly so.

Related and stronger: fear of starvation. It doesn’t come near me, here in the Netherlands, but it’s very real for people in poorer countries. For those who are on the edge of this, any action coming from this fear, even if blind, is of course legitimized. The UN is working hard to mitigate this, but that will unlikely be enough.

Or how about the fear of the unknown? The scale and size of the measures to control this pandemic are unprecedented. We don’t know what our next year, two years, three years will look like. We never did, of course, but this time feels different. I think this one also originates from the fear for captivity. Not only because we are inside all the time, but also because we have reduced control over our own lives. To embrace the unknown is one of the hardest things for people who have everything, but we’re all forced to do that now. It’s truly crazy to imagine how much could change. This tempts us to already make a choice for ourselves on knowing how things will play out. But whatever we imagine the future will be, we’re likely wrong. I am actively refraining from trying knowing anything except that I’m pretty sure we’ll still be dealing with this in some form for a long time.

I was glad to see quite some of the politicians political leaders admitting that they don’t know what will happen either. This included Putin, Merkel and the lesser known Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte. They refrain from making predictions on how this will evolve in the coming months. They all show a certain insecurity about the facts out of fear of getting it wrong. The risk here, though, is that they shift the power and the blame of decision to epidemiologists, which isn’t always the best approach either. With the constant stream of information, I’m also regularly afraid of being wrong, but luckily I don’t have this great responsibility of decision-making. Is being wrong a type of incarceration of the mind? I don’t know. This one doesn’t very clearly fit one of the boxes of media-friendly fears, I guess.

On the other end of the spectrum, the fear of appearing weak, more clearly relates to the fear of captivity. Because if you’re weak, you can be controlled. According to some leaders, at least. Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, and Orban are shining examples. Well okay, I can’t speak for them, and in hindsight not for the guys I mentioned in the previous paragraph either. If I look into myself, the moments where I want to appear powerful are when I want to get my will to become reality. Anyway, I’m not so afraid of this, in the context of this virus I think.

Personally, I have more fear for societal or economic disruption or collapse. Did you see the oil price drop to negative territory? Insane. It is an intricate fear these days, because such a disruption could come in many forms. It could come with a sudden wave of sick people overloading the hospitals, but also from economic or social unrest due to an overly locked down consumer lifestyle. From the popping of the debt bubbles. It could come with the emergence of a new kind of apartheid, where immune people can freely move while the vulnerable have to keep locking themselves up. Or when a scary order seizes control. Such disruption could lead to situations of captivity and physical harm. I do think this fear is rooted in those two fears, among others, and therefore very media-friendly. The big question is the order of magnitude in which things may go wrong and how they might get fixed.

Then, of course, there is the fear of a sudden implementation of intelligence infrastructure such as 5G. All around the world, people are now burning down 4G towers because they believe the emergence of 5G is bad news. A clear link with the fear of contamination and also with the fear of captivity. The fear comes with the hypothesis that 5G is meant to control us somehow, for example by making us sick. While I kind of share the fear for the emerging intelligence infrastructure, I find it hard to relate to this virus. We were already well on our way with installing 5G before this mayhem started. People want their self-driving cars.

Related, and also very much linked to the fear of captivity, is the broader fear of being controlled by the government, the media or by the corporate world. The lockdown itself is quite scary. It weakens us all in our way. And under these circumstances, the removal of a video from Youtube or Facebook, due to “community guidelines” looks extra suspicious. Or the implementation of surveillance apps. Some people believe thight response is a test to see if governments and corporations can further control the population. Living in Western-Europe, in one of the countries ranked highest on the global press freedom index, where everything is up for debate and every fart of the prime minister is under scrutiny, I’m personally not too worried by this. If this was the case, they would not have removed the circuses. But I do see the threat of the emergence of dictators exacerbate, which is scary, particularly for people living in the areas where they tighten their rule.

In the early phases of this thing, Asian people were looked upon with disgust throughout the world. Later, the same happened to Italians in Europe, New Yorkers in the US and now, foreigers are seen as scary in Asia. Well, at least we have something in common. Indirectly, that’s a fear for the virus itself, of course, so a fear for contamination, but journalists like to elevate this to xenophobia, which I think comes closer to a fear of captivity. I have felt this fear in the early stages when I saw some Asian people with masks, I must admit.

Let me end this series on that fear for masks. Personally, I find people with masks on the street a little scary. Not when I think about it, of course, but the sight. Wearing them myself, not so much, but it’s certainly not my hobby. Masks are introduced as a mandatory thing in many countries, but not here, so I don’t wear one at this time. Perhaps I will if I become aware of a local outbreak in my neighbourhood. This fear definitely has an aspect of loss of control and captivity. Particularly if the mask is mandatory. An ominous sign of a dark presence in the streets.

Taming the coronamonster
By declaring that we are able to control this virus, the WHO has laid an unprecedented burden on each one of us, and on our leaders in particular. Whoever is in power now, is obliged to make the effort to solve this problem.

For the first time in history, we are putting all our global human effort in getting a grasp over an elusive beast of this scale. There is something majestic about that ambition, but at the same time, it has something utterly naïve. What does success mean here? Will we ever get there? And what does failure look like? The fact that we’re taking up this collossal task says something about who we as a human race think we are. And who we are becoming. What that is, no-one knows.

What we do know now, is that we can no longer go back. This virus isn’t simply a force of nature anymore. We have made it into a nuisance that we are failing to get rid of. When people die, that is our fault. When people live, we can praise ourselves. No more God or Allah to rely upon. We have called upon ourselves the burden to look for the middle way between life and death on a global scale.

That in itself is a frightening thought. It combines, at least in part, many of the fears I mentioned above, makin the coronavirus into the ultimate subject for media and social media to publish about. I’m not surprised to see a lot of different, opposing views clash online and off. And since fear is a strong motivator, I would also not be surprised to see eruptions of civil unrest, resistance and disobedience appear in the months to come. I just hope people will cut each other some slack when looking each others fears in the eye. Because I don’t think demonizing each other is the way to go.

However it looks to you, we all agree that the fears are real. Yet while some may see in it a call to arms, I’m trusting that things will turn out well. I’ve seen structures crack open that I’d never expect to some years ago. Something to talk about in my next blog, perhaps. Who knows when that will be. And while there is a lot to doubt, question and meditate upon, there’s one thing I’m certain about. We live in interesting times. And I’m grateful to be in the priviledged position to witness it from a distance.

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