Coronavirus and "moral panic"

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 5 March 2020
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Photo: RNZ

Stock markets are crashing, borders and schools are shutting, big events are cancelled and people are hoarding toilet paper.

It’s called ‘moral panic’, and one scientist is warning it’s more damaging than any global health emergency.

Today on The Detail, Sharon Brettkelly speaks to Sarah Monod de Froideville from Victoria University about what the term actually means.

"The criteria for a moral panic is that the reaction is disproportionate to an objective reality," she says.

Brettkelly also talks to Samuel Paul Veissière, who wrote an article for Psychology Today called 'The Coronavirus is Much Worse Than You Think - How COVID19 is infecting our minds, not our lungs'.

He explains what's behind the irrational reaction to the coronavirus. Our minds like to "jump to threatening headlines" with alarming numbers, he says.

So far, nearly 100,000 cases of Covid-19 have been reported globally or 0.0001 percent of the population. In comparison, season flu makes up to five million people sick enough to get treatment, 0.06 percent of the population. The flu results in 290,000 to 650,000 deaths each year; so far about 3,000 people have died from Covid-19.

People don't worry about dying from flu or heart disease because they are part of the every-day fabric of how they expect the world to be.

In contrast, the coronavirus is a novelty - but the evolution of the 24 hour news cycle and the internet also play a big part in causing moral panic.       

Veissiere describes the rush to stock up on household items such as toilet paper, rice and hand sanitiser as ‘epidemic hoarding’.

Meanwhile Jessie Chiang discusses economy with RNZ's business editor Gyles Beckford. He explains why the stock market is so vulnerable to fear.

"If you don't know what's going on and you don't know whether the value of your asset is going up or down ... because you can sell out of shares quickly, it's the easy hit, it's the easy release value for nervous investors and so at such times you just sell," he says.

Several industries have already been heavily impacted by the coronavirus - forestry, tertiary education and tourism.

Beckford expects it will take months before things are back to normal.

"This is a bigger spook than most, hence people are more panicked, people are more uncertain, the falls have been more pronounced, steeper, and I think they'll be longer. It will take us a while to get back lost ground," he says.