Enough with the pandemic porn already!

I am aghast at the amount of nonsense I’m seeing in my social-media feed from formerly sane friends who have seemingly defaulted to sheer blind panic mode in the last couple of days over the coronavirus pandemic.

We know there is not yet enough testing available, and that many people are certainly infected who don’t know it and may therefore inadvertently spread it to others. So far, there is no approved vaccine, and we don’t know when or if one will be proven effective and made widely available. There is no specialized treatment; that will depend on how the illness manifests, from cold-like symptoms in most people to something much more serious in vulnerable populations like the elderly, immune-compromised, or people with chronic respiratory ailments.

Dealing with it will inescapably be inconvenient and expensive, and globally we will be experiencing the negative effects for a while. That’s a given. It takes nerves of steel and a cast-iron stomach to handle the vertiginous drops in the stock market. An estimated 75% of global supply chains are experiencing coronavirus-related disruptions. Major universities are cancelling classroom teaching and migrating their courses on-line. It’s entirely possible that schools will close and students sent home, forcing parents to take time off from work to care for them since congregate day-care would be out of the question.

In these circumstances, preventing transmission and new infections is paramount. Limiting our exposure to large crowds and maintaining a degree of “social distancing” in close quarters is sensible, even when people are not sick or exhibiting any symptoms, and so we are greeting one another with elbow or fist bumps, bows, and the like, or simply staying home. Gov. Gavin Newsom has understandably banned or sharply curtailed most large-scale events, and venues from the Los Angeles Music Center to smaller theatrical and musical venues have voluntarily suspended their public performances. From outdoor rallies to indoor debates, not to mention real-time voting, the presidential campaign must be completely reconfigured.

But barricading our doors, hoarding supplies and stockpiling food like survivalists sheltering in place in a science-fiction apocalypse movie is neither necessary nor prudent. All we are doing is creating artificial shortages that disadvantage others and amplify the sense of social breakdown that acts as an accelerant to widespread panic and chaos. This is irresponsible on every level.

We saw it in the mid-‘70s when the Arab oil embargo boosted gas prices, and people responded by lining up around the block to keep topping off their tanks, creating massive traffic jams, exhausting supplies, and inviting even more predatory price-gouging. We certainly saw it during the terrible early years of the AIDS epidemic, when paranoia, prejudice and homophobia denied victims treatment, inhibited efforts to track the disease and contain its transmission, indulged ignorance and fostered conspiracy theories (embodied in political cultist Lyndon LaRouche’s two AIDS-quarantine ballot initiatives) and exploited both the legitimate concerns and irrational fears of the larger community. And we see it today in the marketing of costly face masks that are ineffective and even counterproductive as protection for their wearers, and in the panic-buying and predatory pricing of hand sanitizer and other cleaning products.

As a general rule — a vaccine against stupidity, if you will — I never share anonymous posts and particularly those that assert, “please share.” I’m not an epidemiologist or infectious disease expert, and I don’t pretend to be, and so I rely instead exclusively on the best official information and the most rigorously reported journalism I can find, subject to revision and update as necessary. I actively discourage promiscuous sharing of second, third, and fourth hand anecdotal advice and personal accounts that are not properly vetted. In a global health emergency, inaccurate and even malicious click-bait content is every bit as dangerous and destructive as the coronavirus itself. More so, in fact.

We may find a useful analogy in the classic Twilight Zone episode, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street,” an allegory about an alien invasion whose strategy depends on the psychological manipulation of Earth’s ignorant, fearful, and vulnerable population. We already know that Russia and other bad actors have weaponized social media for a number of years to sow confusion and division in our political world. A genuine pandemic is an enormous gift to those who would weaken us and do us harm. Why would we want to make it easier for them by giving in to our worst irrational impulses?

I urge — I implore — my friends to get a grip and start focusing exclusively on vetted, authoritative information, to follow prudent and sensible health precautions, pay close attention to your own health condition, and buy only what you need, not all you can carry.

With common sense and sobriety, we will get through this together. But giving in to an addiction to pandemic porn is not helping anyone. Please stop it. Now.

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