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Why would panic during this coronavirus pandemic be a bad thing?

by adamzerner1 min read8th Mar 202031 comments

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It seems like it's mostly being taken as a given that we want to avoid panic. I'm sure avoiding panic is in fact desirable, but I don't quite understand why that's the case, so please interpret this post and my follow up comments as Socratic grilling.

If there was panic, here is what I would expect:

  • People would stay home as much as possible.
  • This would involve some staying home from work, which would hurt the economy.
  • There would be enough public support to get more government funding approved.
  • With that money, they'd find a way to continue to provide core infrastructure to people. Eg. by simply paying workers more to go to work.
  • There would be a huge demand for things like hand sanitizer and masks that wouldn't be able to be met. So the government would have to step in and regulate those items.
  • People would rush to the grocery stores to stock up, and stores wouldn't be able to meet the demand. So the government would have to step in again, perhaps to restrict purchases and distribute food to people. But that seems like something that is doable. Eg. give everyone a big bag of rice and beans.
  • With everyone staying home, it'd reduce the spread of the virus.
  • Which would buy us time to produce more tests.
  • Eventually we'd be able test the whole country and figure out who is infected and who isn't.
  • From there we can isolate and treat those who are infected.
  • And once we do that, the risk of transmission will be much smaller, and we can start to move back to normalcy.

Here is what I suspect might be wrong with that story I just told:

  • Maybe it wouldn't be so easy to provide core infrastructure to people. Maybe I'm underestimating how many moving parts there are.
  • Maybe the economic damage caused by all of this fear will really set society backwards.
  • Maybe the government doesn't have the authority to do a lot of the stuff I'm envisioning.
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Several of your bullet points read "X goes wrong, until the government steps in". What makes you think the government is able to put out these fires at the same rate as people run into them? The government also just consists of people. Declaring a national emergency, regulating supplies and stores, testing the literal whole county and providing food and healthcare packages takes time, planning and frankly skill that I'm not sure governments have.

That being said, I agree with quite a few of your points. But I think the negative impact of empty grocery stores, people hoarding hygiene products, shops closing because too many employees are staying indoors etc. will be very serious, and that it will take at least weeks before any centralised plan will be able to catch up with this.

Here are a number of points:

  • People flocking to the hospital now to demand treatment for a simple cough, or for influenza, will overwhelm hospitals just when we need them most.
  • It's far harder to do contact tracing and reaching out to the community to get them messages about what they should or should not do when people are panicking.
  • When there are sufficient supplies of things like food, like now, and people start hoarding, shortages become a self-fulfilling prophecy. (On the other hand, if there would be shortages anyway, then the only justification for encouraging hoarding is because you want to buy things instead of someone else who may need it more. From a utilitarian perspective, that seems obviously unjustifiable.)
  • "The government" in the US certainly doesn't have the authority to do most of these things. Governors can declare a state of emergency on a per-state basis, but commandeering resources would still be hard to justify legally. They would try to do it anyways, but a state government doesn't have enough people to actually do most of this.
  • Lots of essential industries like the water company and the electric company need other parts of the economy, like delivery trucks and computer-logistics systems to continue functioning. These can all break down in a panic. Worse, I'm very uncertain how robust the US economy is to shutting everything down, then trying to start back up.

Increasing perceptions of danger could lead people to refuse to take care of people they otherwise would have provided care for. This is undoubtably bad for the person who would have received care; whether it's good or bad for society as a whole depends on the specifics of transmission and care.

Because people who think and act deliberately are less likely to blindly and actively hurt others than those who are acting on a fight/flight/freeze instinct. We are not evolutionarily equipped to handle threats of a nature such that:

  1. it just doesn't have a face to punch
  2. running away is just going to result in the formation of dangerous migrating packs of sick monkeys spreading the problem around and looking for something with a face to punch
  3. freeze looks like going about business as usual and ignoring the problem, which is good news for the invisible, unpunchable threat

Panic is what we call it when the elephant has gotten really freaked out and the rider stops trying to determine the best course of action in the face of what feels like an uncontrollable primitive mind. Panicky people tend to do stupid things like breaking quarantine, other-seeking for comfort, finding out those people are all panicking too and starting a riot instead of appropriate behaviors like staying inside whenever possible, making phone calls to authorities to report the riot outside, and washing their damn hands (and maybe sanitizing the phone as well).

I think it's axiomatically better if people do stuff on purpose instead of acting out of animal fear. I'd even think this if people were choosing to do the wrong stuff due to, let's say... inconsistent and unreliable messaging or something, because at least they're thinking and acting deliberately which makes them less likely to do the stupid panicky animal things that confer no benefit but add needless harm to the problem.

By analogy: most of the deaths from the Spanish flu are believed to have been caused by over-reacting immune systems. Our global response to disease has the potential to cause more damage than the disease itself.

That is not necessarily what is happening -- but it is a scenario we should be aware of.