Coronavirus: The Cognitive Epidemic

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Coronavirus: A Long Day’s Journey into Night

Yesterday morning, I sat down to write an article about a Bulletproof Radio episode that Dave Asprey diffused last week about this coronavirus. He invited anthropologist and cognitive scientist Samuel Veissière Ph.D. onto the show, who got his attention due to an article Veissière published in Psychology Today that framed this coronavirus as primarily an infection of the mind and not our bodies. Essentially, he believes that this coronavirus is a “moral panic,” or a “cognitive epidemic.”  

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Meaning, coronavirus doesn’t pose a threat to the majority of our populations, yet we’re treating it as if it did. However, when we asked a healthcare provider that we’ll call “Gladys,” she illuminated that this isn’t so much about where the epidemic lives in our bodies. The larger issue is our health care system, and as always, access to resources. 

“The system has completely fallen apart,” Gladys said. “There is no communication and no information. We don’t know how to treat our patients, where to send people for testing, etc. It’s insane.”

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On the one hand, the moral panic angle is applicable. We’re missing a most pressing message though: how do we divide scarce resources when everybody is afraid and wants to protect themselves but not everybody is equally at risk?

“This is a moment for us all, Gladys urged, “to really think about the concept of public health. What it means to care for ourselves and for each other in a global way.”

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Is this a cognitive disease? There is truth in that statement. 

It’s time “to take a deep breath, turn off the TV, and think about what it means to be a human,” Gladys says. 

From the moment I started this article, I was constantly interrupted by this coronavirus. Headlines kept alerting me on my phone, friends came into my orbit with a perspective to share, and trying to remain clearheaded through all of it was rocky, to say the least. I include the headlines and conversations as they appeared throughout the course of writing this because the truth of the matter is–this is insane.

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First, I started with a quick google search of the headlines, marinating on the idea that this coronavirus is a moral panic without a strong foundation in reality. Then I called a friend who, to my surprise, was in Utah skiing.

“The slopes are empty,” he told me. “Don’t know if it’s the coronavirus, but there’s no one.” 

My father fought in World War II, so I’ve heard many stories from that era. During that time of war, there was an incredible, collective effort in rationing our resources here at home in order to support the country. Women went into the factories and worked. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” Theoretically speaking, we can mobilize and make sacrifices for a greater cause. Why do community efforts such as these seem plausible at times of war, but not in times of a public health crisis?

We’ve got the cash, resources, and manpower to go for war. We’re ready for that. Comparatively speaking, we are completely unprepared for a public health crisis. We allot next to nothing to support the health care system. The idea that we would unite as a community to donate, ration, or whatever in service to a population in need–no matter how small–probably has not surfaced in one headline.

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There are viruses, diseases, and crises that numbers-wise are much more frightening than a coronavirus. The seasonal flu kills 291,000 to 646,000 people worldwide each year. About 647,000 people in the United States die from heart disease every year. The opioid crisis kills 130 people each day and costs the U.S. economy 78 billion dollars a year.

More than 250,000 people are hospitalized each year due to pneumonia. 50,000 people die from it. Both of these statistics only factors in people from the United States. In the case of malaria, over 1 million people die from it every year, mostly children under the age of 5. An estimated 300-600 million people suffer from malaria each year. Yet, a coronavirus is sending the world into a state of utter panic.

Thus far, there have been 111,753 cases of coronavirus reported along with 3,888 deaths. Judging by the two million likes that Elon Musks coronavirus tweet received, calling the panic over a coronavirus “dumb,” a fair amount of people share his sentiment. 

81% The percentage of cases which, according to a study of 45,000 confirmed infections in China, caused only minor illness.

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Gladys, the healthcare provider with whom I spoke, confirmed that this coronavirus will manifest similarly to the flu for most people. “The majority of people need to be safe and extra careful with hand washing and avoiding large crowds. Not such a big deal. It is a big deal for anyone over the age of 60 to 65 or with an underlying serious health condition including diabetes or heart disease.” Interestingly enough, the virus does not seem to pose a threat to one of the most vulnerable populations to disease, which is children. 

The entire thing is very difficult to sort through, and statistics, such as an estimated death rate of 3.4%, remain hypothetical, not factual.

“Although we don’t know for sure it looks like, the mortality rate for coronavirus is up to 30 to 40 times that of the regular flu,” Gladys says.

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Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology and director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, breaks down why the death rate isn’t 3.4% but rather more like 1-2%.

The truth is that we don’t know. “I don’t know about definitive statements,” Gladys says. “We are all so confused, made worse by no leadership.”

Not knowing is a big trigger for us, which is understandable. At least in the United States, the media is inundating us, but then we cannot trust our own government to tell us the truth. Then, we accuse and blame China and Iran for not telling us the truth. Does anyone know what the f*ck is going on?

Statistically speaking, our chances of dying from the common flu are higher. Then, why are we panicking for our own safety instead of looking at the masses that are at risk, our elders, health care providers, etc., and making sure they’ve got oat milk or face masks? We’re taking resources, limited resources, out of the hands of those that need it the most. Oat milk jokes aside.

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Despite the fact that the surgeon general, Jerome M. Adams, explicitly said in a tweet, “seriously people–STOP BUYING FACE MASKS,” not only are sales skyrocketing but apparently people are also stocking up on oat milk. To further express the point, face masks are not going to prevent the general public from getting this coronavirus, “but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk.”

According to Gladys, “The hipster on the train is not just being silly. They are hurting others.”

It isn’t about whether or not the face masks actually protect us or not, it’s psychology that is driving people to buy them and to clear every shelf in the supermarket. Furthermore, we know crises are, commercially speaking, lucrative times for businesses. That is psychology too. 

“An oil price crash and another stock plunge threatened to set off a chain reaction in financial markets that could drag down the global economy.“

Psychology, from Samuel Veissière’s perspective, which he shared on Bulletproof Radio last week, is truly driving the epidemic.

He called this coronavirus exclusively a “moral panic.” To define that term in his words, “when people freak out, and act irrationally and do really stupid things based on ideas…usually risks that are not actually true.”

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According to Veissière, there is evidence that shows that a series of epidemics broke out in the Paleolithic era that contributed to the hardwiring of “the fear of the other” getting us sick. Thus, hardwired in our brains is the idea that disease and “the other” may go hand-in-hand.

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Our language, Veissière points out, is riddled with pathogen-related language such as “vermin” and “grossed out.” We speak about ideas “infecting the minds of the young,” and call people “sick in the head.” Evidence even exists that the evolution of cultures directly correlates to the presence of pathogens in the environment. More conservative cultures tend to arise out of environments with more pathogens whereas more liberal-minded ones are linked to areas that have fewer pathogens. In simple terms, pathogens have had an impact on our sense of morality and how we relate to one another. 

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From Dr. Murray’s perspective, the fact that this coronavirus originated in China brings anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States and abroad into the spotlight. Our suspicion that the Chinese government has not been totally transparent about the disease is one manifestation of this underlying racism, in not-so-simple terms. (The same sentiment is being directed towards Iran.) Add another essential ingredient, our programmed survival instinct, and any potential threat feeds our obsession with danger.

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But what happens when we’re in less danger than we’ve ever been? (In some cases.) According to Veissière, we’re living in a moment in which for some cultures, the reality of danger has been reduced. In Western countries, at least, most people have lived through world wars, famine, economic peril, etc., up until relatively recently. Crimes in North America, for example, are at a historical low but the fear of crime is up. One of the reasons why this coronavirus is garnering such spectacular coverage, in his mind, is that we live in worlds that are too safe. That is, those of us lucky enough to live in safe worlds, of course. He proposes, none the less, that the virus is exploiting our cognitive vulnerabilities.

From a Western standpoint, these theories may be true. From a certain socio-economic standpoint, this is true. Up until now, we’ve been charging for the test, and it’s been cost-prohibitive for some, though this might be changing now. Many people, in the country and abroad, do not have access to the same resources as others. That doesn’t feel very safe.

This is not to say that our panic doesn’t come from an unconscious survival mechanism or a deeply seeded fear of threats or the other. More importantly, our panic is making us consume resources to the detriment of those who need them. That’s where we need to check ourselves.

So I Called the Coronavirus Hotline

A friend arrived at my workspace, in New York, while I was finishing up this article. She just returned to New York from Washington D.C. and Baltimore. “I have a cough,” she whispered not wanting to set-off any alarms. Being a good citizen, she had called the coronavirus hotline this morning to see about getting tested for the virus. 

“Do you have symptoms?” The man asked.

My friend repeated the information that I just gave you. 

“I have a cough.”

In order to determine whether or not she qualified to take the test, he asked her if she had been within six feet next to someone with a confirmed case of coronavirus for an extended period of time. 

“How would I know that?” She asked him. In the end, she didn’t quality.

She had been in two states that declared a state of emergency and in a city (Baltimore) where two new cases have been confirmed. Nevertheless, the man told her she did not qualify for the test. I suppose the coronavirus hotline is blowing up right now with coughing people wondering if they harbor the virus, but of course, they can’t take any of that seriously.

Our health care system is no joke. Gladys urges against this type of behavior. “People need to look at the symptoms, their risk, and then decide if they need a test. We have limited resources.”

“From a psychedelic community perspective”

From a psychedelic perspective, this is a moment to think of ourselves not merely as individuals but as a part of a whole–something bigger. Crisis, and especially an infectious disease crisis like this one, is the ultimate test of what it means to be a human in community.

This is not the time to rush to check-out, people. This is a time to remain sober and to deeply consider what our value systems are. 

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