Post written by Emma Singh and Sydney Weiss
In the incipience of SARS-CoV-2, a palpable panic pervaded the globe. Hordes of shoppers wiped shelves clean of Clorox wipes and toilet paper; children called their parents and grandparents, frantically urging them to stay inside at all costs. Trepidation spread to social media, as internet influencers called on their followers to quarantine in the hopes of slowing the spread of the virus or “flattening the curve.” Between Feb. 12 and March 23, the Dow lost 37% of its value, augmenting the mounting distress. Policymakers’ overarching goal was to allay public panic by conveying clear information and optimism. However, despite swift information, mass fear remained, leaving policymakers to wonder: how exactly (if at all) can policymakers ameliorate or amplify the fear felt by the public during unprecedented pandemics and future health disasters?
A recent study by Michael Bechtel, William O’Brochta, and Margit Tavis tackles this very question. The researchers employed a 5,461-person experiment in which participants read about fictitious infections that mimicked the current state of COVID-19 and the resulting policies. Then, participants expressed their feelings of current fear, forward-looking fear, and fear-related responses such as panic buying. The study’s results indicate that swift policy measures reduce fear felt by the public in pandemic-like conditions. But the actualized effects of such policy responses on the disease infection rate emerged as the most salient driver, reducing fear among respondents by a factor of 30 to 35 percent. Indeed, the findings signal to policymakers that it is perhaps better to architect effective policy pro forma rather than dissecting the type and timeline of its delivery.
In a country where people inform themselves on the pandemic via their favorite political figures and siloed media platforms, we must discuss the rigid partisan divide and how it affects mass fear. Given Republicans’ fear of losing perceived civil liberties and their resistance to government interventions as a means to slow the pandemic, it would be natural to predict that the results of such a study would differ across party lines. Interestingly, the study found Republicans, Democrats, and Independents to have comparable results to how policymaking affects fear. Just as the overall findings indicate, Republicans too, develop fear in response to policy outcomes. One caveat is that partisanship does still affect policymaking perceptions, but the way individuals derive fear from a given policy is relatively universal, regardless of such partisan polarization during a public emergency.
Looking beyond SARS-CoV-2, with the current rate of climate change, population growth, and increased transnationalism, future pandemics are likely to be a concomitant part of our lives. This fact naturally induces fear in the public; however, lessons learned from the world’s experience with COVID-19 can better inform our response to such threats in the future. With the denouement of mass panic and apocalyptic scenes from March 2020, hopefully, the days of mass adverse responses from the public to are behind us. As is consistent with the lessons learned from the findings, swift policy responses and most importantly, effective ones, are crucial to both reducing public fear and enabling individuals to focus on their wellbeing above all.
Emma Singh is a recent graduate of Washington University in St. Louis and a research assistant on the project.
Sydney Weiss is a senior at Washington University in St. Louis and a research assistant on the project.