Over the course of history, there have been many major pandemics. Some of the most well-known include the Bubonic Plague in the 1300s, smallpox in the 1500s, and HIV/AIDS at the end of the 1900s. Compared to these plagues, COVID-19 is still a small blip on the world history scene. That is, unless you’re one of the people affected by the virus. An estimated 848 thousand people have died from this virus in less than a year. With modern travel, world trade, larger cities, and increased contact between people, there’s an increased potential for viruses of any kind to spread. This is one of the reasons for the widespread concern about COVID-19.
The Deadliest World Viruses
However, the mortality rate isn’t the primary factor in how people respond to a virus. For example, HIV is one of the deadliest viruses in the modern world. Since this virus was recognized in the 1980s, more than 32 million people have died from it, but there’s relatively little chatter about HIV on the news and social media websites. Rabies is a particularly bad disease that kills 100 percent of the people who contract it and don’t get treatment. Along the way, sufferers experience severe brain deterioration. But concern about this virus is almost unheard of.
Perhaps the worst virus of all is the Marburg virus which was identified in 1967. During the first outbreak, the mortality of the Marburg virus was 25 percent, but the mortality rate reached 80 percent in 1998-2000 and 2005. Amazingly, many people around the world wouldn’t even recognize this virus by name.
The Panic Response to COVID-19
Why has the response to COVID-19 been so different? Why did people rush out to buy toilet paper? What fueled the panic in response to this latest coronavirus? There are several factors at work, including a lack of faith in government responses, a variety of contradictory information on social media, and a lack of transparency.
5 Stages of Disaster Reaction and The Government Response
Sandro Galea, an epidemiologist who studied disasters over the space of 50 years, identified five stages of reaction to a disaster:
- Group preservation
- Blame Setting
- Justice Seeking
When COVID-19 first made its way into the United States, the first reaction was one of fear and a desire to protect oneself. This led to the panicked buying of toilet paper and other necessities.
At this point, a strong response from the country’s leaders could have moved the country into the second stage: group preservation. This is where administrators with appropriate government career skills could have led productive conversations on social media. As society progresses through the next several stages, and especially through the blame-setting and justice-seeking stages, controlling the narrative is vitally important.
It is still possible for country leaders to correct their initial response. People don’t want to debate how to properly respond; they want to take action and feel a sense of control. Consistent public statements with a transparent sharing of accurate facts is a great way to help people regain a sense of normalcy. In a pandemic or any other type of disaster, leaders must communicate clearly and consistently about the government plan of action and the steps citizens should take. This allows government leaders to peacefully move communities through the five stages of reaction and toward renormalization.