Staff Editorial: Research is key to dispelling your fears

Most of the time, when a news alert pops up on your lock screen, it serves as a reminder of what you already know — the world is a scary place. The big story dominating the news cycle changes periodically, each time giving us a new thing to fear. Right now, that fear stems from the dangerously contagious, sometimes fatal coronavirus.

We get it. Seeing headlines with updated numbers of diagnosed cases and deaths is undeniably scary. But before we all decide to give into the fear, we need to make sure we educate ourselves on the full truth about the coronavirus. Educating yourself puts your panic into context.

First of all, coronaviruses as a group are not new to science. Although much of the panic seems to be about “the coronavirus,” there are many different types of coronaviruses, most of which are not serious and circulate regularly throughout the population. In fact, it is likely you have had a coronavirus before in your life: around 15% of common colds are estimated to be caused by coronaviruses.

The current outbreak of coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China, is a new type of coronavirus, termed COVID-19 for coronavirus disease 2019. Obviously, this virus is more severe than the common cold. However, it is important to note that COVID-19 is not actually the first brand new and severe type of coronavirus to cause a sudden and worrying outbreak. In 2003, SARS coronavirus broke out, first reported in China. Then in 2012, MERS coronavirus broke out, first reported in Saudi Arabia. Both outbreaks were effectively contained to be mostly regional diseases. 

Global panic fuels widespread misinformation as people listen to inaccurate stories and statistics spread by people who have misunderstood the facts, and as false reporting is dispersed, the mass fear can quickly become worse. After hearing frightening information about a new and confusing topic, it is easy to hide and avoid more information out of fear you will learn something worse — but you should not. There is no reason to be overwhelmed by panic when you know all of the facts.

The best way to educate yourself about the coronavirus outbreak is not necessarily the news. Sensational news stories from disreputable sources are obviously bad sources of information, but even trusted news sources can heighten anxiety rather than calming you down.  Instead, consider using organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) as sources. 

Since the WHO is the global organization responsible for containing the outbreak of COVID-2019, they have up-to-date data on where coronavirus is affecting people. The WHO issues daily situation reports with these numbers on their website. As of Thursday, Feb 20, these numbers show that of the 76,718 known cases of coronavirus, 75,465 are in Mainland China. This is 98.3% of cases. They also show that of the 2,247 deaths caused by coronavirus, all but 11 have occurred in Mainland China. This is more than 99.5% of deaths. These numbers put American panic about coronavirus into a global context.

Like the WHO, the CDC also issues information about the coronavirus outbreak. However, the most important information on their website to read during this coronavirus panic is actually not about coronavirus at all: it is about the seasonal flu. The seasonal flu is something most of us have experienced. We think of the flu as unpleasant, but because it does not often make headlines, we tend to underestimate its dangerous effects and overestimate those of coronavirus. However, numbers on the CDC website show that worldwide, between 291,000 and 646,000 people die of seasonal flu every year. This is more than a hundred times more deaths than the current coronavirus outbreak has caused. 

This context is not presented to imply that coronavirus is “not a big deal” or that “everyone should just stop worrying about it.” Outbreaks of novel diseases are serious, and will most likely become more common as globalization and climate change advance. However, in times of panic, the best solution is research. Seeking out reputable, unbiased sources like the WHO and CDC can point you in more productive directions, calming unnecessary worries or calling your attention to more serious issues. And if you’re not sure what sources to trust, consulting the library’s reference librarians is always a great place to start. Panic is unproductive, and research is the cure.