Mass hysteria during coronavirus pandemic: a possibility?

Mass hysteria during coronavirus pandemic: a possibility

Fear has become a highly exploitable commodity in the political and media marketplaces. We live in a society with ever-growing medical and technological possibilities, allowing us to identify viruses and other threats much faster; this has made us more risk-aware than ever and therefore when the perception of risk increases, the feeling of risk increases. Sometimes it is a natural evolutionary reaction that increases when the disease creeps closer. These psychological reactions happen naturally, and we aren’t always aware of they occur.

A good example is panic buying shown by consumers in retail stores. Data has shown an increase in the sales of hand sanitizer by over 400% this year alone. Other items affected include a face mask, toilet rolls, and several other household items. This can further induce several other people to also panic buy products in preparation for a period of isolation which may never occur.

This fear is also being fed by endless media attention. Pictures of numerous people in hazmat suits, facial masks along with videos from hospitals and isolation wards give a poor perspective of the disease. So it is only right that the public panics after seeing the frightening images and videos.  Also, inadequate and biased news reports such as reporting only cases of infected persons without giving reports of people who have been cured of the disease. The daily increase in a number of cases, countries along with popular people affected gives an image to the public which can only be described as fear.


Fake news and clickbait all over social media have also added to the panic of people. Conspiracy theorists have shared claims such as the illness came from a biological weapon lab in Wuhan, a vaccine for the virus already exists and is not being distributed, among others. This false news installs fear in the general public and contributes to mass hysteria. Social media can be a wonderful tool that increases global connectivity and understanding, yet in the case of the coronavirus and other potential crises, it tends to breed uncertainty, falsehood, and panic.

As said by the World Health Organisation Director-General during a press briefing to the media, “The fight against rumors and misinformation is a vital part of the battle against this virus. We rely on you to make sure people have accurate information about the threat they face, and how to protect themselves and others”.

Before we go into panic and mass hysteria, a few questions and facts need to be provided. What is Coronavirus?

Coronavirus originated in the small town of Wuhan in China. It is now thought to be transferred from human to human transmission. Coronaviruses are one of a variety of viruses that typically cause colds. The current virus is one of three strains that cause more deadly outbreaks (the other two being SARS and MERS). The symptoms of the virus include a fever, cough and difficulty breathing. Now, the severity of the coronavirus is not to be downplayed. As of 13th March 2020, the number of cases globally has exceeded 145,000 with over 5, 000 deaths. They have been several reported cases in China, Iran, the Republic of Korea and Italy as the majorly affected countries globally.

The truth is that in reality, according to the World Health Organisation, mortality is between 3 to 4%. In short, out of 100 people infected, only about 3 to 4 will die. This means most people will survive and recover fully from the supposed next viral contagion.

Similar cases of hysteria have occurred. In 2003, there was hysteria over SARS, which also originated in China, and which killed a total of 774 people in 29 countries.  In 2009, there was swine flu, killed approximately 12,000 people in the USA only. Most recently was the Ebola Virus in 2014 which originated in Congo. There was mass hysteria during all these outbreaks.

The question is not if it is a possibility, the question is how far will the mass hysteria go?

**Coauthored with Olajire Tolulope ([email protected]), a Public Health Expert at Nigeria’s Premier University Teaching Hospital

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