“Corona-phobia is affecting every single person,” said Jerusalem-based psychologist Michael Tobin. “I am seeing extreme anxiety in patients from across the spectrum. It is extreme panic.”
Tobin has been a psychologist for 46 years and has lived through social, economic and military conflicts. Rarely, he said, has he seen “the level of anxiety this sky high” as he is seeing from the spread of the coronavirus.
As of Thursday, more than 94,000 people have contracted the virus first detected in December and more than 3,200 deaths have resulted from the disease. In Israel, the government has continued to expand restrictions to protect the population from the lethal disease, known scientifically as COVID-19. By conservative estimates, more than 11,000 people are in home-quarantine in Israel, according to the Ministry of Health.
But Tobin said people are not panicking because of the rapid spread of the virus across the world, but rather because they are wired to fear the unknown. A new epidemic, such as coronavirus, triggers irrational fears in people.
“It is the fear of the unknown,” Tobin said. “It is the idea that my life is being intruded on, that anyone I am with can be suspected of carrying the virus and I am vulnerable.”
He said when there is a red alert, Israelis are trained to run to their safe rooms – they known how to handle it. In the case of coronavirus, “there is no safe place. The door handle is a threat, the counter, all public places, your friend.”
Moreover, he admitted that living in an era with high levels of government and media distrust, no one is sure what information they can trust.
“There is a lot of information and misinformation and it can be confusing,” he explained. “Is it just like flu, so a small percentage of people are at risk [of dying from it]? It is a flu on steroid and even more dangerous than the government is making it out to be?
“There are so many unknowns and everyone feeds off of everyone else’s fear,” he added. “The fear is more contagious than the virus itself.”
J, who asked that his full name not be used, said he agrees. He told The Jerusalem Post that he cannot trust “any of the numbers coming out China,” that he questions the morbidity rate shared by the World Health Organization and does not buy-in to the reports that around 80% of people who contract the virus show minimal to no symptoms.
“You can see from the reaction of the prime minister of Israel that this is a lot more serious than some people think,” he said.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a press conference, “We have to understand, we are in the midst of a global epidemic, the most dangerous of these epidemics in the last 100 years."
J said he understood from that message that the coronavirus could be as deadly as the 1918 influenza pandemic, colloquially known as Spanish flu, which is estimated to have killed between 50 million and 100 million across the globe.
“The Spanish flu wiped out a nice chunk of the world population,” J said. “I know what the prime minister is saying – this is not the flu; this is an apocalypse.”
Dr. Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, added another element to why panic might be increasing and that is social media. She said that when the virus first broke out in China, Israelis did not really know about it. That, she explained, is because China has strict social media laws. The government does not let people tweet outside the country. Citizens use different social networks and the government moderates what appears in Google searches.
It was only after the coronavirus traveled to Europe that more people started to understand the impact of the disease.
“Until recently, the places that had the most cases were China and Iran – places that don’t have free media,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “When it got to Italy, we started seeing average citizens talking about it and reporting about it – you cannot stop their use of social media.”
Tobin, too, said that he thinks the news sometimes sensationalizes the situation simply by constantly reporting on it. He cautioned people to stay calm or calm down.
“We can turn into an OCD [obsessive–compulsive disorder] world if this continues,” Tobin said.