Most mammals evolved with a herd instinct to run from danger. If the person is running toward you screaming, it is logical to assume they are running away from something that you should be afraid of as well. But as with many of the instincts we inherited from our days on the African savanna, panic today is mostly counterproductive.
Uncertainty greatly exacerbates panic. And when it comes to the COVID-19 virus there is a lot of uncertainty. Some of that is unavoidable because the virus is, as its name implies, novel. We have a very thin statistical stack from which to draw any reliable inferences. And to make matter worse, the numbers from different parts of the world are very inconsistent. (More on that on Monday.)
The inherent uncertainty has also been exacerbated by inconsistent and, in some cases, outright, contradictory information and responses from the government officials. And, of course, the mainstream and social media have been nonstop pouring gasoline on the fire.
Certainly, individuals for which respiratory illnesses pose a heighten risk should take precautions. But those individuals should take precautions every flu season. Whether the extraordinary measures now being taken ultimately prove to be rational based on the risk COVID-19 poses, we will have to sort out after this has passed. But pure panic, like hoarding toilet paper and bottled water, is absurd. Yesterday Mayor Sylvester Turner tweeted, “The world is not coming to an end. But if it is all that bottle water and toilet paper you are buying will not get used.” I don’t frequently retweet the Mayor, but I on this occasion I did so immediately.