Beyond the White Coat

An epidemic of fear and misinformation


As I write this, the 2019 novel coronavirus* continues to spread, exceeding 59,000 cases and 1,300 deaths worldwide. With it spreads fear. In the modern world of social media, misinformation spreads even faster than disease.

Medics in white hazmat protective suits checking and scanning passengers in a plane for epidemic virus symptoms. Delpixel/Shutterstock

The news about a novel and deadly illness crowds out more substantial worries. Humans are not particularly good at assessing risk or responding rationally and consistently to it. Risk is hard to fully define. If you look up “risk” in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, you get the simple definition of “possibility of loss or injury; peril.” If you look up risk in Wikipedia, you get 12 pages of explanation and 8 more pages of links and references.

People handle risk differently. Some people are more risk adverse than others. Some get a pleasurable thrill from risk, whether a slot machine or a parachute jump. Most people really don’t comprehend small probabilities, with tens of billions of dollars spent annually on U.S. lotteries.

Because 98% of people who get COVID-19 are recovering, this is not an extinction-level event or the zombie apocalypse. It is a major health hazard, and one where morbidity and mortality might be assuaged by an early and effective public health response, including the population’s adoption of good habits such as hand washing, cough etiquette, and staying home when ill. But fear, discrimination, and misinformation may do more damage than the virus itself.

Three key factors may help reduce the fear factor.

One key factor is accurate communication of health information to the public. This has been severely harmed in the last few years by the promotion of gossip on social media, such as Facebook, within newsfeeds without any vetting, along with a smaller component of deliberate misinformation from untraceable sources. Compare this situation with the decision in May 1988 when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop chose to snail mail a brochure on AIDS to every household in America. It was unprecedented. One element of this communication is the public’s belief that government and health care officials will responsibly and timely convey the information. There are accusations that the Chinese government initially impeded early warnings about COVID-19. Dr. Koop, to his great credit and lifesaving leadership, overcame queasiness within the Reagan administration about issues of morality and taste in discussing some of the HIV information. Alas, no similar leadership occurred in the decade of the 2010s when deaths from the opioid epidemic in the United States skyrocketed to claim more lives annually than car accidents or suicide.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell, a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant in St. Louis.

Dr. Kevin T. Powell

A second factor is the credibility of the scientists. Antivaxxers, climate change deniers, and mercenary scientists have severely damaged that credibility of science, compared with the trust in scientists 50 years ago during the Apollo moon shot.

A third factor is perspective. Poor journalism and clickbait can focus excessively on the rare events as news. Airline crashes make the front page while fatal car accidents, claiming a hundred times more lives annually, don’t even merit a story in local media. Someone wins the lottery weekly but few pay attention to those suffering from gambling debts.

Influenza is killing many times more people than the 2019 novel coronavirus, but the news is focused on cruise ships. In the United States, influenza annually will strike tens of millions, with about 10 per 1,000 hospitalized and 0.5 per 1,000 dying. The novel coronavirus is more lethal. SARS (a coronavirus epidemic in 2003) had 8,000 cases with a mortality rate of 96 per 1,000 while the novel 2019 strain so far is killing about 20 per 1,000. That value may be an overestimate, because there may be a significant fraction of COVID-19 patients with symptoms mild enough that they do not seek medical care and do not get tested and counted.

For perspective, in 1952 the United States reported 50,000 cases of polio (meningitis or paralytic) annually with 3,000 deaths. As many as 95% of cases of poliovirus infection have no or mild symptoms and would not have been reported, so the case fatality rate estimate is skewed. In the 1950s, the United States averaged about 500,000 cases of measles per year, with about 500 deaths annually for a case fatality rate of about 1 per 1,000 in a population that was well nourished with good medical care. In malnourished children without access to modern health care, the case fatality rate can be as high as 100 per 1,000, which is why globally measles killed 142,000 people in 2018, a substantial improvement from 536,000 deaths globally in 2000, but still a leading killer of children worldwide. Vaccines had reduced the annual death toll of polio and measles in the U.S. to zero.

In comparison, in this country the annual incidences are about 70,000 overdose deaths, 50,000 suicides, and 40,000 traffic deaths.

Reassurance is the most common product sold by pediatricians. We look for low-probability, high-impact bad things. Usually we don’t find them and can reassure parents that the child will be okay. Sometimes we spot a higher-risk situation and intervene. My job is to worry professionally so that parents can worry less.

COVID-19 worries me, but irrational people worry me more. The real enemies are fear, disinformation, discrimination, and economic warfare.

Dr. Powell is a pediatric hospitalist and clinical ethics consultant living in St. Louis. Email him at [email protected].

*This article was updated 2/21/2020.

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