Fear is the strangest of all passions… I am not very well versed in the study of human nature, according to the consecrated expression, and hardly know by what means fear acts in us. What is certain is that it is a strange passion. None, doctors say, throws us so hastily out of our common sense. In fact, I have seen many people made foolish by fear. Even among the most thoughtful, it is certain that when they are in the grip of fear, it causes terrible disturbances of the mind… Fear is the thing in this world that I fear the most. By the grave incidents that it causes, it surpasses all other types of accidents.
– Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.
– Franklin Delano Roosevelt, presidential inauguration speech, 1933
Regardless of what one may think about the wisdom of the confinement strategy for dealing with the SARS-CoV-2 virus (also known as “lockdown” or “quarantine of the healthy”), it would be wise to think about one aspect of the pandemic that has scarcely been discussed. It is as if there has been a general fear to talk about whether fear itself has increased the rate of infection, worsened infections and caused deaths that would not have occurred otherwise. In other words, if we had merely noted that there was a nasty virus going around this year then calmly and bravely carried on with our lives, taking certain wise precautions, would a more moderate reaction have resulted in less suffering and death? We will never know, but it is a question worth asking.
Many will say that this is a speculative question, not something that science is capable of addressing, but in fact the connections between emotional states and the immune system have been studied intensively and confirmed numerous times. Science has confirmed the wisdom of Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century. Medical science knows how people respond to placebos and nocebos. It knows precisely how the endocrine system responds to stress through the chemical interactions of the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis (HPA axis). Sensory stress and chemical stress can make this system malfunction, which leads to weakening of the immune system. Chronic or severe stress in childhood can lead to lifelong dysfunction of the HPA axis.
I discovered an exceptional commentary on the role of stress in the corona virus pandemic in an essay by Benoit De Coster, a French concerned citizen who resides in Alicante, Spain. In his essay he described the confinement policy as “con-finement,” which alludes to the French slang “con” meaning “idiot” and many other synonymous pejorative terms. It also alludes nicely to the English meaning of “con”—something deceptive or fraudulent. The con artist is a “confidence man,” a fraudster who is skilled at getting people to misplace their confidence in him.
Mr. De Coster makes his point by relating a fearsome experience he lived through on a flight to London in 2015…
Benoit De Coster, “Coronavirus: Is the world losing its sense of reason?” (Coronavirus… Le monde est-il en train de perdre la raison?), March 22, 2020, pages 9-10.
Every year millions of people die from lung diseases; millions, not thousands! Until now [late March, 2020], overall mortality in France [this year] is clearly lower than we saw, for example, in 2017. Imagine that every day the evening newscast started by saying:
Today there were 410 cancer deaths in France and 1,054 new cases…! (these are the real numbers). Worldwide 26,300 people died this Sunday, March 22, and 49,589 new cases were diagnosed.
The reporters would then broadcast video images of the most disfigured and frightening patients. So I ask this question: if every day the media served up such news, do you think that the number of cancer patients would increase or decrease?
One could add here a further question about whether governments would act on this cancer pandemic by deciding to (1) curtail economic activity by 50%, (2) create a massive spike in unemployment, and (3) order healthy people to confine themselves in their homes. One might say that cancer has always existed and more cancer is a natural result of longer lifespans, but there has undoubtedly been an alarming increase in childhood cancer in the 20th-21st century that could be attributed only to industrial civilization and the pollutants it puts into human bodies and the stresses that it exposes children to. Yet human societies are not inclined to react urgently to the long-term, slow-motion catastrophe of the cancer pandemic (nor to the other pandemics of obesity, diabetes, cardio-pulmonary disease, immune disorders, depression, neuro-degenerative disorders…). Ironically, it is the chronic neglect of chronic disease that has left so many unhealthy people vulnerable to a virus that healthy people can resist. With less fear and better chronic health, this virus would not have caused a social and economic upheaval.
As much as the reaction to the corona virus is an irrational over-reaction, there seems to have also been rational decisions made somewhere to amplify the irrational fear. In the past, no government has ever reacted this way to pandemic threats that were equally dangerous, or as potentially dangerous at the time decisions were being made about whether drastic measures should be taken. The common sense wisdom of previous eras was that social consequences would simply be far worse if drastic confinement measures were imposed. What changed? I’m all for converting our civilization to a less energy-intensive economy that reverses the trend in chronic health problems, but I would not like to see it happen as it is happening now; that is, it should happen in a way that doesn’t add to the misery of the poor while increasing the wealth of the oligarchy.
Mr. De Coster goes on to describe an incident that underscores how fear is contagious and how fear can cause physiological homeostasis to collapse, leading to fatal consequences:
One day in April 2015 I had an experience which was, to say the least, both disturbing and instructive. I have been flying for my work between three and six times a month since 1999 and, apart from two scares (a tornado upon landing in London and strong turbulence while crossing the Atlantic), I had never felt very bad on a plane. The exception was that day in April 2015. It started at the moment of take-off from Alicante, Spain. The captain was about to put the engines in full thrust, but at that moment I saw a great agitation at the front of the aircraft. A flight attendant got up hurriedly, and a few seconds later the captain aborted take-off and announced that we were returning to the gate. There was a great deal of concern and we realized that a passenger had a serious heart problem. Efforts to save him lasted more than an hour, but then we saw this passenger, who had obviously died, being taken from the aircraft. His distraught wife left with the body. The incident was disturbing enough, but what followed was simply mind-blowing. I had been taking this flight at least two times a month and I had never seen anything unusual!
On that day, however, after the plane took off finally—full of retirees as usual, it must be said—there were not just three or four passenger call lights that went off but at least twenty! I’m not exaggerating! The flight attendants were running in all directions with masks and calls for help from any doctors who might be on the plane. It was unspeakable chaos, so much so that as we neared Paris the captain told us that he was going to attempt an emergency landing at Roissy. The situation was surreal and, I must admit, even I, under this tension, began to feel ill! I too was overwhelmed with anxiety. Finally, we landed not in Paris but in Brussels, where several ambulances were waiting for the flight to pull up to the gate. I confess not knowing how many passengers really died on this flight of terror that day. I can only say that I was happy to set my feet on solid ground. There comes a time when a group’s behavior can become totally irrational.
Fear is the greatest ally of viruses and all diseases, of all pathologies. Fear causes the immune system to collapse. A classic experiment on rats showed this a long time ago (Jay Weiss at Rockefeller University in the 1960s). One group of rats was subjected to shocks, but they were given a way to shut off the mechanism. They survived, but the other group, deprived of a way to control the shocks, died of various infections. The experiment clearly demonstrated that the loss of control led to a complete collapse of the immune system. It was no different during epidemics throughout history. No wonder the worst pandemic of humanity was the bubonic plague which wiped 50% of the European population off the map between 1347 and 1352. In the midst of the inquisition, the clergy preached that the plague was punishment for one’s sins. And who had not sinned in his life? This terror imposed by the clergy (the mass media of the time) must have contributed to the huge toll of the plague on a terrified population.
We are witnessing this phenomenon as a long live broadcast now, and we can thank the media for contributing significantly to the reduction of pension costs in France. It is truly outrageous and revolting. In this outbreak of the corona virus, the media are criminally responsible and are most certainly responsible for increasing the mortality rate. Why do we accept this when nature has endowed us with an absolutely wonderful thing called the immune system? I am personally shocked. This rise of media power is unacceptable. Moreover, the social consequences are devastating because our leaders, obsessed with trends and media images, do not make decisions by keeping a cool head and analyzing the situation as it really is. Instead they follow the mood of the media-led population.
In France, this phenomenon of the media-led frenzy had its first instance in the anti-Semitism and nationalist paranoia that provoked the Dreyfus Affair of the 1894-1906 period. It was perhaps the first time the inflammatory powers of the mass media, including their influence on politicians, became evident, and there have been many examples since throughout the world. It usually takes a decade for such disasters to be recognized and remediated, if there are opposition forces willing to rise up. Julian Assange has been imprisoned longer than Dreyfus was on Devil’s Island, yet only marginal and powerless voices have spoken up for him. No one budges in the politico-media establishment. There are brave people speaking out, but none who have the stature and weight of the novelist Emile Zola when he stood up and cried, “J’accuse!” in his famous editorial calling for justice for Alfred Dreyfus. But even in the Dreyfus Affair and other such scandals in which there has been successful resistance, a generation has to exit the stage. The perpetrators have to grow old and powerless, or die, before the lamentable scandal can be recognized for what it was as the mass media itself steps in to write the “we got it so wrong” story. How long will it take for the world to comprehend the strange days of early spring in the year 2020? As the saying goes, hindsight is always 20-20.
For those who understand spoken French, Mr. De Coster’s video presentation can be seen here. The twenty-three-page essay is unpublished.