OPINION
02/03/2020 16:57 EST

Worried About Coronavirus? Don't Give Into The 'Pancebo Effect.'

A person begins to worry that the worst is about to happen without valid evidence. It’s panic over logic.

When the World Health Organization designates 2019-nCoV — the new coronavirus making headlines — a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, it’s understandable if you experience some worry. You may ask: Does it pose a risk to me? How can I keep myself safe? Will this become a pandemic?

The answers are shared by government authorities and the WHO to increase awareness and maintain calm. They are conveyed in a confident and direct manner without any hype so the public doesn’t overreact to the situation — or so we hope.

Unfortunately, that objective seldom materializes. Instead, what I call the “pancebo effect” tends to occur.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
A pedestrian wears a protective mask in Toronto on Jan. 27, 2020.

We’ve all heard of the placebo effect, when a patient feels a benefit absent of an actual treatment. It’s belief over biology. The pancebo effect is when a person begins to worry that the worst is about to happen without valid evidence. It’s panic over logic. 

We’ve seen the pancebo effect before with viruses that had little to no impact on Canada, such as H5N1, the avian flu; MERS (cousin of SARS) and Ebola. In all of these cases, our country was gripped by fear,  though there was no definitive reason for concern.

In light of the events in China over the last few weeks, have you felt a tinge of panic grappling with news surrounding 2019-nCoV? Have you watched the updates feeling like the situation is out of control?

The 24/7 news cycle tends to trigger our sense of worry.

It’s difficult to resist the pancebo effect. There are reports of dwindling supplies of face masks in numerous cities, including Vancouver. The Canadian government has been questioned as to why it hasn’t banned flights from China as the United States has done, and others are asking whether our nation is ready to deal with this virus. Perhaps worst of all, the Asian community is fearing an increase in racism because the outbreak was centred in China.

Yet only a handful of cases have been reported in Canada, and they are all mild. Looking beyond our borders, there has yet to be a single serious case of the virus anywhere in the world but China. 

What is the risk, then, to Canada and to you?

Let’s put it this way: you’d only need a face mask if you are within a few feet of a person who’s visited the Wuhan area in the past two weeks, or has come into contact with someone who has, and they’re coughing or sputtering respiratory fluid onto your face or hands. 

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
A face mask can be useful — if you're nearby one of the few individuals exposed in Canada.

There’s also a chance you could pick up the virus from a surface in high-traffic areas, like airports, but this can be remedied by washing your hands or properly using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Because the Chinese government has suspended all traffic from hot zones like Hubei province, there is an extremely low chance for the virus to spread to another country. The self-quarantine has been effective thus far, and may be what we need to keep this virus from going global.

Knowing the low risk the virus poses to Canada, you might wonder how the pancebo effect could possibly take hold here as it has. The answer is that it’s fostered both inadvertently and on purpose.

The 24/7 news cycle tends to trigger our sense of worry by repeating the same stories of infection, quarantine, and death several times a day. A free and open social media is hyperbolic compared to reality. Masters of mis- and dis-information use fragments of the truth to elicit an emotional response that prompts panic.

Then there are conspiracy theories that range from the peculiar proposal that the outbreak started with a bat soup to anarchic accusations of government-sponsored biological warfare. While most people would not give these ideas an ounce of credit, in a pancebo state of mind, the proffered postulates feed into the already weakened state of trust in health and government officials.

Smith Collection/Gado via Getty Images
This illustration created at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gives us a closer look at 2019-nCoV.

As we’ve seen with past potential pandemics, when the pancebo effect takes hold, it’s almost impossible to resolve it without bringing the outbreak to a conclusion altogether. The number of newly infected cases will plateau, and the number of suspected cases will decrease and eventually drop to zero. 

When this happens, the news cycle will move on (as it has done in the past), social media will find a new trending topic, and the only people left paying attention to 2019-nCoV will be the health-care workers and researchers who will spend years trying to better understand this virus and why it caused the outbreak. To put it into perspective, how many of you remember the concern over MERS, or that time H5N1 came to Canada? And whatever happened to Ebola? At the time, it was the scariest thing on the planet. Today, it’s just a faint memory.

We don’t need to succumb to the pancebo effect. We can seek out information on the outbreak from trusted sources, such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Closer to home, we have the Public Health Agency of Canada, the provincial and municipal health authorities, and our local hospitals. Many of these organizations provide regular updates with ongoing information that you need to know to stay confidently safe.

As for me, I’ve been going mask-free with no worries. I do keep a scarf around my neck just in case someone happens to cough or sneeze within a few feet of me, but I’m not doing this because of coronavirus. There are much more worrisome viruses out there, like flu, which is in peak season and raging across the country. So carry hand sanitizer, stop touching your face and get your flu vaccine (if you haven’t yet, there’s still time). After all, unlike coronavirus, the flu is an immediate threat to all Canadians’ health.

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