As cases of COVID-19 proliferate in some countries, there have also been a widespread of fear that has unfolded alongside this novel pandemic; coronavirus.
In Nigeria, there have been mass cancellations of public events/gathering over the fear of the spread of coronavirus. Most stations have shown images of “panic shopping” going on in most areas. Magazines have talked about attacks against Asians and Americans sparked by “racist coronavirus fear” I happen to witness one incident the other day in a mall.
Due to the rapid nature of modern media, fear has continued to spread faster than the dangerous yet invisible coronavirus. Fear is highly contagious, watching or listening to someone else who’s scared creates fear in you too, the funniest thing is that you don't even need to know what resulted to the other person’s fear.
Responding with fear in face of danger
Let's imagine a herd of antelopes grazing in the sunny African savanna and suddenly, one antelope feels a stalking lion waiting to hurt them. For a moment the antelope freezes. Then it quickly alerts the others and Immediately runs away from the predator. In the blink of an eye, other antelopes begin to flee.
Brains of humans and animals are hardwired to react to threats in their environment; smell, sight or sound that signals the presence of a predator immediately triggered their survival responses: first is immobility, then the escape.
The structure responsible for the response to threats is called the Amygdala, it is a structure buried deep in the head within the brain’s temporal lobe. The Amygdala receives information and detects stimuli associated with danger immediately.
Afterwards, the amygdala pushes the signal to other areas of the brain, that includes the brain stem and hypothalamus areas, to further coordinate defence responses.
These responses are known as fight, flight, freeze. Humans share these instantaneous unconscious behaviours with other animal species.
Fear contagion occurs automatically and unconsciously, which makes it more difficult to really control.
Once fear is triggered in the crowd – let's say someone thinking that they heard a gunshot, we have to take cover – there is no time to verify the sources of the problem and why. We must rely on one another, just like the antelopes do. Fear finds its way from one person to the other, and it continues and soon everyone starts running for their lives. Most of the time these mass panics end up with tragedies.
Like u said early, fear contagion does not request physical contact with others to affect people. Media reports of terrifying images and information can rapidly spread fear.
As humans in its in our nature to get fear contagion and also in our nature to cope in such situations. There’s no way to prevent fear contagion from kicking in – it’s unconscious and automatic, after all – but you can do something to alleviate it. Since it’s a social phenomenon, many rules that govern social behaviours apply.
In addition, information about safety can be socially shared too. Subsequent studies have shown that being with a calm and confident person helps with overcoming fear acquired through contagion and so on. For instance, a child that is cared for by a strange animal will be calm if a calm adult is present. This safety modelling is more effective when you have eyes on someone very close to you such as a caretaker.
In as much as actions matter more than words, words and actions must equally work hand in hand. For instance, reporting to people that it's not necessary for a healthy person to put on a face mask and at the same time projecting images of healthy COVID-19 screening personnel putting on hazmat suits, I think it's counterproductive. When people go out there they'll go and buy face masks because they see authority figures wearing them. By the way, nothing is wrong with Facemask.
Information about danger and safety must be given clearly with straight instructions on what to do in such a situation. When you are under stress, it is difficult to understand details. Withholding important information or lying increases uncertainty, and uncertainty brings about fear and anxiety.
Evolution has programmed human beings to share threats and fears through contagion with others. Good news is that it also equipped us with the ability to cope with threats together.