The Real Danger of the Coronavirus

Italy is locked down. But there’s a greater danger facing us all.

Image courtesy of Pixabay

I am sitting here in our apartment in Florence, Tuscany feeling both scared and defiant. The normally bustling street is quiet. After an extraordinary few weeks which has profoundly shocked Italy, the world is catching up. The news everywhere is dominated by the potential impact of Coronavirus.

Over the past weeks, the mood has shifted many times. The government and health officials initially attempted a calm and reassuring stance, realising that panic and misinformation could have catastrophic effects on the national psyche.

Fear of an epidemic is as old as mankind itself

In the first week, the country’s president, Sergio Mattarella, called for the “irrational and motiveless fear” to stop.

The Italian Society of Psychiatrists (SIP) issued guidelines on how to cope with “Coronavirus stress and anxiety.”

Enrico Zanalda, president of the society talked of the “violent impact” on daily life. Fear of the virus has caused “the cancellation or postponement of thousands of small but important events in people’s lives from birthdays to baptisms.”

“Fear of an epidemic is as old as mankind itself. In this case its effect is amplified by incomplete, even false information which has caused public confidence in our institutions to collapse.”

Wise words.

On the early hours of March 10 things took a dramatic twist. Italy is now in total lockdown to try and contain the spread of Coronavirus. People are being told to stay at home and that “there is no red zone, just Italy”.

Schools and universities throughout Italy are closed and public gatherings, funerals and weddings are banned throughout the country.

All religious gatherings have been stopped, although churches can have their doors open for private prayer.

Only food shops and pharmacies are open, plus a few other exceptions, but most shops are closed.

Travel between towns is allowed only if essential and you have to show a form giving the reasons for your trip.

Many are praising the Prime Minister’s “brave decision”. I don’t think he had a choice, with media and political pressure, and the alarming rise in cases in the north.

But to me, it also sends the message that fear now rules and calm seems a lifetime away.

The sick man of Europe

Italy was the first European country to announce the death of a national from Coronavirus. It’s now the most affected country after the USA and the death rate has surpassed China. No-one knows exactly why yet, although I have a theory I have written about here, which has since been vindicated by research published on April 20.

Venice carnival was cancelled because of the Coronavirus outbreak. Image courtesy of Pixabay

Travel plans are now in tatters for millions. Most airlines have suspended flights to Italy. Those currently visiting for work or social reasons should have no trouble leaving, in theory, but there are many cancelled flights and they may face checks or self-quarantine for 14 days when they arrive at their destination.

The Figures Today

These figures are from the Ministry of Health website and I update them after the daily 18:00 press conference.

As of 14 May there have been 223,096 positive tests. Of those 31,368 have died and 115,288 have recovered. Twenty-one regions plus Vatican City are affected.

Tuscany, where I live, has got 9859 confirmed cases of the virus.

The majority of positive cases do not need hospital care and are in self isolation at their homes.

Knock-On Effect

In this iconic city of Florence, so reliant on tourism, businesses are reeling.

Hotels are empty. They say the effect on the economy is worse than 9/11. I can believe it.

Everyone, from the restaurants, designer shops and five-star hotels to tour guides, wedding planners and villas in the hinterland, has been affected.

My husband is the chaplain of St. Mark’s Anglican church in Florence. There is now no public worship allowed, but he is keeping the doors open at the usual times for private prayer. If ever there was a time when a vicar is needed, this is it.

He has written some special prayers for people afraid of the coronavirus. You can find them here.

The city of Florence is noticeably empty. Picture: Fiona Cameron Lister

The sense of fear and uncertainty is greater every day. Students from American universities were the first to leave. British universities followed suit. Florence is now empty.

Everyone is afraid. And that is the key.

The Real Virus

One thing has become chillingly clear over the last surreal weeks: the power of fear is a far greater threat than any virus.

There has been a panic-led reaction from governments seemingly caught on the back foot who have no excuse for lack of preparation. Organisations such as the World Bank have been campaigning for a planned response for years, saying “We know that it is only a matter of time before the next pandemic hits us.”

Their 2017 report says: “For far too long, our approach to pandemics has been one of panic and neglect: throwing money and resources at the problem when a serious outbreak occurs; then neglecting to fund preparedness when the news headlines move on. The result has been too many lives lost, too much damage to human livelihoods.”(From Panic and Neglect to Investing in Health Security — World Bank International Working Group on Financing Preparedness, 2017)

For the media, whose life-blood is a dramatic story with minute-by-minute developments, the coronavirus is a gift.

There are special programmes on Covid-19. Outside testing centres, journalists deliver their reports with masks on. The papers show alarming pictures of patients in intensive care.

Meanwhile abroad, headlines like those in the UK Daily Mail screaming: JAIL FOR REFUSING QUARANTINE closely followed by “over-70s face four month lockdown.”

For the trollers commenting on this piece and saying “don’t read those kind of papers then” — I don’t. Millions do.

I just got a message from a friend in the UK who is a strong independent lady over 80. She had read the above and wrote: “I can’t cope with being inside for four months, Fiona, I will definitely be mentally and physically ill by that time. I am panicking about what on earth is happening here.I think the worse thing for the immune system is fear and stress and that is what people are being put through.”

Is that really what we want? To terrify people?

Theories abound on the Internet. Is it a plot to cut population numbers? A massive deception to distract us from some other problem they don’t want us to know about? Did the virus originate in a lab near the Wuhan fish market? Is there something big they’re not telling us? Are we all doomed?

This is where mass hysteria can so easily take hold.

The greatest fear is that of the unknown. It is a primal terror that can make neighbour turn on neighbour, can make us racist, selfish and irrational.

It doesn’t take much to start a panic and we are teetering on the brink.

That is what I am really afraid of. That this situation and its exaggerated, apocalyptic reporting has now become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

We already know that a rumour, say about a possible water shortage, can cause a stampede on bottled water which in turn results in a real crisis.

All over the world there are pictures of people clearing supermarket shelves in preparation for a lockdown.

It doesn’t take much to start a panic and we are teetering on the brink.

Getting Things in Perspective

What we are lacking at the moment, I think, is some kind of context for the numbers.

In an attempt to gain more understanding, I looked up the statistics for influenza in Italy. They are a revelation.

At this moment there are over 500,000 people in bed with flu (“normal” flu, not Coronavirus). The average death rate from flu-related illness over the last five years is 8000 a year.

The devastating flu epidemic of 2016/2017 in Italy resulted in 24,981 excess deaths, according to a study published in the International Journal of Infectious diseases in August 2019.

If you want to know more about context, I have written more about the statistics here.

I know this is not like normal flu. I have read the stats like everyone else. I understand that in a worst case scenario public health systems will be overwhelmed. The north of Italy has a nightmare situation at the moment to prove exactly that point.

I am in lockdown, following the rules, and only going out to buy food. My husband has stayed in Florence while I am now at our home an hour away, on my own. So don’t tell me about the need to socially isolate. I am living it now. I understand the logic.

We all understand that there is danger in underestimating a threat.

But there is danger in overestimating one too.

If we published hour-by-hour figures of flu deaths and it was our only topic of conversation, we would soon have public hysteria.

I am advocating a realistic, calm assessment of the current situation, carefully navigating that fragile area between fact and emotion.

Most people unlucky enough to be affected by the virus will recover.

Italy has an ageing population. The average age of those who have died is 79.5 years according to the Ministry of Health, who also stated that over 99% had at least one pre-existing health condition. This is tragic for the families. I am in no way minimizing how awful it is to lose someone of whatever age.

However, it is significant in terms of fatalities for a disease.

Most people unlucky enough to be affected by the virus will recover.

I’m not a doctor, but from what I have read, if you have a strong immune system, you will probably be fine.

If you wash your hands regularly and take sensible precautions, you should minimise any risk of catching the virus.

Mind Games

What is not being discussed much is the effect of fear on our bodies and minds.

People can literally scare themselves to death. Fear and worry suppress the immune system by flooding us with various hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline.

The mind and immune system are in a delicate balance. Stress, whether chronic or sudden, can make us ill or kill us.

The Coronavirus will definitely affect you if you succumb to fear. Writing this, I know it has already affected me. I have a little knot in my solar plexus. I woke up at 3 am this morning thinking about it.

This has to stop. I need to take control of my brain and not indulge in obsessive scanning of the internet or other fear-inducing activity.

I know the immune system is strengthened by healthy eating, exercise and laughter. So I am going to take positive action:

  • I resolve to watch a comedy programme rather than Sky News.
  • I will change the subject if people start engaging in gossip or anxiety-based rumours.
  • I will eat well and sleep as long as I can.
  • I will walk for half an hour each day.
  • I will try to remember that Italy’s population is 60.48 million, and that I should get things in perspective.

Since I wrote this article, I have been accused (in the comments below) of being “a danger to the public”, “stupid”, “reckless” and an “idiot” just because I am urging people to stay calm and not waste the only time you have (the present moment) in obsessive worry.

People have pasted statistics and links to prove their argument, missing the whole point of what I am saying. I am not a “Coronavirus denier”. I am saying that frightening people, especially the vulnerable ones we are trying so hard to protect, is not a good approach.

Ultimately, we will not really be able to do much about the outcome of the Coronavirus.

We can do something about the other, far more dangerous and contagious one. The virus of fear.

It’s time to take back control.

Thank you for reading this. You might enjoy next article: Don’t Expect Science to Make You Feel Better.

To cheer yourself up read Coronavirus Fightback — Italians Sing from Balconies!

To see an exemplary way to talk to people calmly about Coronavirus, I suggest you watch Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s broadcast to the nation on March 12.

British Writer, Editor in Tuscany, Italy. Topics: Nature, Ancient History, Spirituality. twitter: @writerinitaly

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