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The New Pandemic: Fear

Terry H. Schwadron

March 8, 2020

The pictures of empty supermarket shelves of toilet paper and hand sanitizer reflect a public anxiety about coronavirus that seems well beyond preparedness for disease spread and into a worrisome mentality reflecting hoarding for long-term personal defense.

Now comes word that gun ammunition sales are up as well — in some instances as much as 400% over a month ago.

And gold prices are going up — always a sign of panic in certain economic quarters.

It’s a new version of backyard Civil Defense caves that maybe could have gotten people through the explosion but not life thereafter. Perhaps it is just me first, again, even it means that we let our neighbors die.

At the outset, let’s remember there is a real disease that is spreading, that globally there are now 100,000 identified cases with 3,000 deaths — or the 3% death rate that Donald Trump insists is inflated. States are beginning to declare emergencies, and Italy is closing down Milan and Venice. Still; sporadic interviews at Trump rallies turn up plenty of interviews that deny there is an actual disease.

For the rest of us, there is a distinct fear building.

It makes me wonder to the degree that we allow threat of what will prove inconvenience and passing illness to most of us dictate how we live our remaining time on the planet. Even at its worst, this coronavirus, which is still too new for us to have much scientific answer, targets people most who already are left frail from other underlying disease.

Now online ammunition retailer, that it has seen a significant increase in sales since February, coinciding with public concern about the virus. During February, said the number of transactions increased by 68%. A marketing spokesman explained that the sales reflect a desire for gun owners to keep themselves and their families safe.

One might ask from what? Anyone planning on shooting the virus? Are we expecting gun battles now over who gets the last Purell bottle?

Ammunition with the 10 largest increases include 40 caliber Smith and Wesson (410%), 223 ammo, which is used in semi-automatic rifles (194%), 12-guage shotguns (95%) down to 22 caliber long rifle ammo (29%), including both handguns and rifles. Sale varied by state, with North Carolina and Georgia showing largest increase (179% and 169%), following by Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida.


Call me crazy, but if we’re trading one kind of public health disease for the wild spread of panic-driven buying of toilet paper and ammunition, we are facing a larger problem than flu-like symptoms.

Schools are beginning to close — with no substantial public discussion about what the consequences will be. Friends have been telling me about the trips they are canceling, and nationally, we’re seeing the cancellation of a wide variety of concerts, conventions and avoidance of large groups. My wife and I stopped by a pharmacy this week for an immunization shot for shingles, and, as we were getting it, the pharmacist warned we might see flu-like symptoms for a couple of days. Great, I thought, what timing.

Still, I rely on public transportation in New York City, where it is hard to remain more than six feet away from the next person. I do think about others coughing on me, but not much about shooting them to keep their distance.

There’s nothing wrong with a little preparedness, particularly arming oneself with actual medical information.

All of which makes for real questions about why Donald Trump insists on substituting his own “hunches,” as he describes them, for actual medical fact. You would think that he, of all people, would want Americans — to say nothing of international audiences — to remain relatively calm during what is emerging as a national emergency. You’ve seen the same television clips I have, in which the president appears one minute to be listening to medical authorities, only to contradict them in the next by, for example, saying there is nothing wrong with sick people going into their workplaces.

This president is too busy politically self-preening to be able offer actual calm through adequate availability of public health testing, and assurances that people will be tested without regard to available health insurance or access to sick leave. Trump’s conflation of shaky virus information with the needs of his own reelection campaign just undercut the validity of whatever Trump says.

Look, the point of all the public apprehension over virus is to get ahead of the inevitable spread of contagion, not to put each of us into a bubble. And that should have nothing to do with Trump reelection politics.


I would like to hear from our presidential candidates a lot more about our societal response to threats like that reflected by coronavirus — about their perceptions about the role that Science should play in setting environmental and energy policies, for example, or establishing medical care that works. I would like to know how they would expect to spread calm rather than disease, and how they would create a government that positions itself to solve problems rather than seem to blithely insist that there is none.

It is becoming clear that disease spread, whether labeled pandemic or not, is exacerbating disparities in our world. It is low-income countries or poor citizens who lack health insurance or health information who suffer more.

Our privatized healthcare system means that if you think you might have contracted COVID-19, you might not be able to afford the test that confirms that, or the days off necessary to prevent one from infecting others.

Contrast this to South Korea, where drive-through coronavirus testing facilities are open to the public and take less than 10 minutes; the country can process 10,000 tests a day.

We’re going to have more diseases with the portent of pandemic. We ought to be using this case to set ourselves up to handle them better.


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Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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