Does panic come in calling outbreak a pandemic?

TORONTO — Calling the COVID-19 epidemic a pandemic will increase alarm about the virus, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, says the author of a book about the psychology of pandemics.

Steven Taylor is a professor of psychiatry at the University of British Columbia and a clinical psychologist. His book “The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease” came out just three weeks before COVID-19 was reported in China.

“If you call something a pandemic, it does heighten anxiety and that could lead to excessive anxiety in some people. But some degree of anxiety is a good, healthy thing because it will mobilize people to do things to protect themselves.”

Reluctance to cause fear in the public is likely leading the World Health Organization (WHO) to hold off on calling the situation a pandemic, says Taylor. The UN agency responsible for global health initiatives was also slow and careful in giving the new virus a name, he says.

“They don’t want to raise unnecessary alarm, but waiting too long can undermine credibility, too,” he told CTVNews.ca. “But the public doesn’t like to deal in probabilities. They want to know what is happening right now.”

Calling it a pandemic can create images for the public of widespread and uncontrolled death, says Taylor, but that isn’t the case for COVID-19. It is believed to be a mild respiratory illness that most, but the elderly and immune-compromised, will recover from in days. In fact, many won’t even know they have the virus, which makes them unwitting agents of transmission.

Taylor says among the challenges for the WHO is that the definition of a pandemic is a “fuzzy concept.” There is no set criteria for speed, scope, or severity of outbreak that triggers calling an infectious disease a pandemic.

Dr. David Fisman, head of epidemiology at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says Canada’s public health authorities have not done enough to provide science-based information to Canadians amid this virus’s emergence.

“I think that frank, honest, transparent public health messaging is very, very important. Folks are already worried,” he said. “People need to know what to expect.”

He said even physicians are confused about how to protect themselves from the virus.

Taylor believes most Canadians seem to be paying attention to the outbreak. Some are alarmed and anxious, while a smaller group thinks the threat is overblown.

His research showed that is a pattern throughout the history of pandemics, along with a rise in xenophobia and discrimination, and unfounded rumours and conspiracy theories. What is different in 2020 is ubiquitous social media that reinforces and accelerates these problems, says Taylor.

Compounding the issue is that there is fear that some nations, including Iran and China, are underreporting the number of cases they are facing.

“I think that really does have an effect psychologically around the world.”

Among the world’s worst pandemics are HIV, which has been ongoing since it was declared in 1981, the Spanish flu from 1918-1920, which killed an estimated 50 million people and infected 500 million, smallpox in 1870-1875, which killed more than 500,000 and the bubonic plague or Black Death that killed about 30 million from 1347-1352.

The most recent pandemic was the H1N1 flu or swine flu in 2009, which scientists believe killed up to 203,000.

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