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Coronavirus and the epidemic of fear

By Peter Curson - posted Friday, 9 July 2021

We have now struggled to come to terms with the Coronavirus pandemic for almost two years. For those who can still remember past pandemics it is like reliving that world again - lockdowns, quarantine, masks, social distancing, work, shop and school closures, cleansing and spraying of premises and long slow-moving queues at testing and vaccination sites.

Almost 20 years ago I argued that our world had tended to ignore infectious diseases and that we were looking at decades of pandemic outbreaks. Such comments attracted little attention. I also argued that we desperately needed to understand not only how infectious diseases spread and their impact in terms of cases and deaths but also how you and I react, behave and are often greatly affected by fear, hysteria and panic.

While our governments and our Public Health specialists continue to place emphasis on the physical impact and diffusion of Coronavirus and argue about what drug might be the best for us, and how it might be made available, in many ways there has been another epidemic, one of fear, paranoia and hysteria, and this epidemic has had a greater impact on the world than the disease itself.


It is always fascinating how people react and behave when confronted by severe outbreaks of infectious disease, particularly those originating from “outside” and where our medical experts have difficulty in establishing the origins and how it spreads among us. It is also quite clear that our reaction to infections like Coronavirus is often not related to the severity of the disease in terms of cases and deaths but more to our deep-seated emotive reactions.

“Plague Fear” may indeed be one of the most basic of all fears, deeply entrenched in the human psyche and nurtured by a mix of concerns about contagion, risk and exposure. Some people even argue that “Plague Fear” is something passed down from previous generations and that past experience helps set and mold the attitudes and behavior of subsequent generations.

There is also little doubt that our reaction is greatly influenced by the struggle of our government to come to grips with the disease outbreak and in the case of Australia, the fight that often ensues between State and Commonwealth Governments over the best procedures to adopt.

There also seems little doubt that the way our Public Health specialists have behaved leaves much to be desired. Public Health comment on how to address Coronavirus has been divided, uncertain and variable in its assessment of the outbreak and what should be done. It is almost as if Public Health has lost its true focus on providing support and helping secure the health security of all Australians.  

The media also plays an important role in influencing our behavior when we are confronted by endless newspaper headlines, radio and TV programs all talking about the surge and spread of cases in often sensational words and images.

The Australian Government has been ominously silent on how fear and public panic might be managed. Looking back, SARS and pandemics like Polio, Influenza and Plague, indicate to what extent such things can totally disrupt our normal life and produce a widespread crisis of confidence.


We still do not really understand how ordinary people handle fear in their lives and what deep-seated fears they have of contagious disease. As well, it is possible that official lockdowns, quarantine and school closures serve to heighten our fears and anxieties. In addition, weekly changes in Government and medical information about the availability and the usefulness of available vaccines adds to our deep-seated concerns.

Epidemics and pandemics have numerous effects: demographic, psycho-social, economic, medical and geographical. Any pandemic leaves its mark on the attitudes and behavior of our population. The history of epidemics and pandemics in Australia all caused an immense emotional reaction and an upsurge in anxiety, fear and despair. In this the psycho-social repercussions far outweighed the demographic or the number of cases and deaths.

For many Australians Coronavirus, like earlier epidemics and pandemics, has been a shattering personal experience and the feeling of helpless exposure, isolation and lockdown has produced widespread demoralization and despair. Anxiety and fear have brought into the open old tensions and antagonisms, particularly with how we view and feel about our government’s reaction and how they and the medical community have tried to “manage” the outbreak.

There is little doubt that fear can spread more quickly than Coronavirus and that the strategies we put up to deal with the outbreak require a delicate balance between protecting the publics’ health and introducing a range of exclusionary solutions and lockdowns that can lead to fear and panic.

It also seems clear that we have fueled fear with the control measures we have advanced and the endless disputes at all levels of government and Public Health about the best vaccine, its availability, who should be able to access it, and when and how it will become available.

Without doubt we have always harbored deep-seated fears and anxiety about pandemics and the way infections spread amongst us. But there is also little doubt that we seem to have learnt very little from more than 200 years of experiencing and dealing with epidemics and pandemics, and in particular, how to understand and handle such events.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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