The coronavirus — and now the oil price war — have sent the entire world into panic mode. The markets are dropping like rocks, states are declaring states of emergency after a handful of flu diagnoses or less, conventions are being cancelled, dire reports are being issued in the media literally every minute.
Panics are nothing new. They have occurred all throughout history. Some panics of dissolve away, but others create awful situations that persist for years and more subtle consequences that inflict pain for much longer. The stock market crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression is an example of the latter scenario.
Our culture today is especially vulnerable to panics. A lot of influences are working against us. If they are unchecked, they will likely lead to many more situations like we’re seeing now with coronavirus. What might some of these influences be?
- Instant gratification culture. We’ve grown accustomed to having our needs met immediately. Need information? Google gives us the answer as fast as we can type. Need a ride? Uber will be there in five minutes. Groceries, sundries, books, pool tables — expect them on your doorstep same day or next day. Whenever the quick-and-easy is denied to us, we don’t know how to handle it — say, like, when the global supply chain is disrupted . Panic sets in. I don’t mean to minimize the actual economic damage underway right now; I’m just calling attention to the emotionally-charged reaction and sense of fear that has been created.
- Politicization of every issue. Every thought and behavior has political implications these days, or at least that is the perception. The media, in particular, is happy to use circumstances to paint its political opponents black, using as wide a brush as possible. This causes all sorts of situations to be blown way out of proportion.
- Doubt. This politicization makes people suspicious of facts that are reported. Can this information be trusted? What is really happening? When people lack trust in all sources of news, they naturally think in terms of worst-case scenarios. It’s hard to plan your next move calmly and confidently when you have no idea what the game board looks like.
- Greed. Crisis sells. Panic sells. Armageddon sells. That’s our fault; not the media’s. If one coronavirus story every 10 minutes brings 500,000 visitors to the website, why not one story every five minutes, or every minute?
- Latent fear. For many years now, we have been told over and over again about the destruction of our planet, the fragility of our economy and the profound unfairness of our society. Everything real is bad and shameful; everything good is illusion. Success is something to feel guilty about; failure is somebody else’s fault. In this atmosphere, is it any wonder people are waiting for the other shoe the drop, the illusion to be shattered, the price to be paid? It’s almost as if we are being set up culturally to expect a disaster.
Given these conditions, the only good news I can think of is that we will become oblivious to panicked behavior in time. If this sort of thing keeps happening, people are liable to think, “You’ve seen one panic, you’ve seen them all.” Of course the problem with that is, if one of these panics is the real deal, we may be too numb to respond; and instead of facing the serious problems of overreacting, we’ll face the much worse problems of not reacting.
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)