Running scared

be afraid

Eighty-seven years ago with the country mired in the depths of the Great Depression and the warning signs of global war already on the horizon, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told his fellow Americans “that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” 

And today, the descendants of those Americans – living in the safest world humans have ever known – find all sorts of things to fear: crime, guns, global warming, health-care costs, pollution, government, grizzly bears, a newly emergent coronavirus and more.

As the world has become safer, it is almost as if we have become more fearful. When FDR addressed the nation, the U.S. homicide rate was 9 per 100,000. It is today 5 per 100,000 and would be significantly lower if not for an epidemic of gun violence among African Americans. 

The rate for white, American woman – a group that seems to worry more than most about gun crimes – is 1.5 per 100,000. That is lower than the homicide rate in Canada.

But still people fear. People need fear. We are hardwired to fear.

Blame nature

Tens of thousands of years of evolution selected for the fearful. Fear helped keep us alive through the eons when we were little more than fur-less, thin-skinned, medium-size mammals dependent on primitive to weapons to prevent ourselves from becoming prey.

For most of that time, we lived a daily struggle. We didn’t need to look around to find things to fear. They were everywhere.

As FDR put it in that now famous fear-of-fear speech, “a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.

“Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for.”

The latter words are truer today than they were then. The grim problem of existence has been pushed aside for more Americans.

“After adjusting for cost-of-living differences, a typical American still earns an income that is 10 times the income received by the typical person in the world,” Guatam Nair reported in the Washington Post in 2018.

When Nair asked Americans to estimate the median global income, he found “the average U.S. resident estimated that the global median individual income is about $20,000 a year. In fact, the real answer is about a tenth of that figure: roughly $2,100 per year. Similarly, Americans typically place themselves in the top 37 percent of the world’s income distribution. However, the vast majority of U.S. residents rank comfortably in the top 10 percent.”

Even the U.S. poor – most of whom live tough lives – are better off than most of the people in the world, and strangely enough they might be less fearful despite being regularly in danger.

Fears in the mind

There are some reasons to believe that the more people have to lose, the more they fear.

“Money is the obvious thing you would expect the rich not to worry about,” Rhymer Rigby writes in Financial Times. “But actually they do. A 2017 survey by Illinois-based financial research firm Spectrem Group found 20 per cent of investors worth between $5 million and $25 million are concerned about having enough cash to last their retirement.

More than that, Rigby observes, a lot of rich people employ security they don’t really need given that they tend to live in some of the safest neighborhoods in the country.

And still they fear because that is what humans do.

Chapman University in California has done regular surveys of “America’s Top Fears.” “Wave 5” was completed in 2018. The changes in the list are as interesting as the fears.

Corrupt government officials led the way in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Corruption is no doubt a problem in government, but how many people have actually run into a corrupt official who caused them a problem personally?

Beneath this category, things shift and change.

“Terrorist attack” was number two in 2016, and “terrorism” was number four. A married couple – Syed Riswan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 29, had gone on a shooting spree in San Bernardino, Calif., the fall before, leaving 14 dead and 17 wounded.

The shootings vaulted terrorism and terrorists back into the news. Both fears were gone from the list by 2017 as terrorism news faded, and they stayed off the list in 2018.

Pollution began creeping into play in 2017. “Pollution of oceans, rivers and lakes” eased into third behind the “American Health Care Act/Trumpecare.”  By 2018, open water pollution has moved up to number two, and number three was the pollution of drinking water.

Lead contamination of the Flint, Mich., water supply had been in the news for a couple years by then, and there was a national debate raging about why nothing had been done about the problem for so long.

Much discussed global warming slipped onto the top-10 list as number seven in 2017, too, and though it fell to eighth in 2018, it was feared by more of those polled: 53.2 percent compared to 48 percent the year before.

“A striking difference between 2016 and 2017-2018 has to do with the environment,” the university concluded. “Since (Donald) Trump’s election, Americans’ are increasingly fearful of pollution, global warming and other environmental disasters. Not a single environmental concern made the top 10 list in 2016. In 2017, four of the top ten fears were related to the environment (#s 3, 4, 8 and 10). By 2018, five of the top ten fears were environmental in nature (#s 2, 3, 7, 8 and 9).”

Searching for fear

The poll organizers also made another rather startling observation. Despite a booming U.S. economy in 2018, they noted, “the extent to which Americans are afraid, in general, also appears to be on the rise.

“By 2018 all the top ten fears were held by more than half of Americans….Americans are becoming more afraid.”

The media role in all of this is unclear, but as now-suspended ABC correspondent David Wright was caught on camera observing of the coverage of President Donald Trump, “we’re interested in three things: the outrage of the day, the investigation, and the palace intrigue of who’s backstabbing whom. Beyond that, we don’t really cover the guy.”

The outrage of the day applies to a lot more than Trump. Take it from The Guardian, the largest online news site in the United Kingdom, which has blacklisted the term “climate change” in favor of “the preferred terms…’climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’….”

The publication has devoted itself to scaring people into taking action on climate change as if journalists own the crystal ball that can accurately see the future.

Some scientists have trouble with this approach.

“My view…is that one should be just as critical of those that say climate change ‘will’ be catastrophic, as those who say it will be ‘lukewarm’, or indeed say it is all a big hoax. None of these positions is scientifically sound,” Tim Palmer, a Royal Society Research Professor in Climate Physics at the Univeristy of Oxford, told the Science Media Centre.

But outrage has become the currency of the day.

When Trump offered up his nothing-to-fear-but-fear take on the coronavirus, CNN headlined “Trump seeks a ‘miracle’ as virus fears mount,” which wasn’t quite what Trump said:

Admitting things could get worse before they get better, he said, “It’s going to disappear. One day it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.”

That isn’t exactly what has happened to other frightening viruses of recent times  – Ebola, SARS and avian flu – but the fear surrounding them did largely disappear.  Nobody worries much about SARs these days or, for that matter, avian flu.

Some Alaskans will, however, remember the avian flu panic that had wildlife biologists  swabbing bird butts in a search for the virus amid fears the fowl could fly the infection into American cities and wreak havoc.

Half empty, half full

How dangerous these microscopic viruses depends to some extent on how one looks at the issue of mortality. Some medical experts are now saying the biggest danger of the coronavirus might be that is not that dangerous enough.

“Ebola kills half of the people who get it,” Bloomberg reported early in the outbreak. “China’s last worrying viral outbreak, SARS, killed 10 percent.

“The new coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan appears far less fatal, with about 2 percent of the 6,000 confirmed cases dying. For many, the illness is about as serious as a cold or flu.

“That seems like good news, but it’s exactly what worries the scientists and public health experts who study infectious disease ranging from the terrifying to the mundane.”

By the day, the worry of the scientists that a lot of people infected with the virus could roam the world unaware they are infected and thus contaminate many others is looking more valid.  The coronavirus has now popped up in California and Oregon with a total of 60 cases reported in the U.S. 

Meanwhile, the death rate among the 78,000 patients reported in China has risen to 3.5 percent. Given such a rate, the virus could kill hundred of thousands or even millions if it began spreading like the flu.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates between 9 million and 45 million Americans have been infected with the flu annually since 2010 with “between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths” per year.

If 9 million Americans were to be infected with the coronavirus, the death toll could reach 315,000. For 45 million cases, the number could rise to a staggering 1.6 million. On a population level, it’s frightening.

But if your doctor today diagnosed you with cancer and then told you the variation of the disease from which you are suffering has a survival rate of 96.5 percent, what would you think?

It’s an interesting question to ponder given that fear lives in our minds as do the mechanisms whereby we deal with it. Fear protects us at the same time it threatens us.




22 replies »

  1. Well … these few untraceable cases of coronavirus on the West Coast are unlikely to be a harbinger. It’s possible, but not likely.

    1.) Otoh, so maybe “Community spread” is (has been) happening here …but if so that means the bug doesn’t live up to it’s billing. It’s not that much, if any worse than other bugs in circulation.

    2.) Otoh, then, these are just another little scatter of isolated cases of infection, and not “Community spread”. They’re blips … and not even yet an outbreak, much less epidemic or Pandemic.

    We knew of this dichotomy, early in the Wuhan/Hubei story. Numbers from Beijing were/are suspect … meaning lots more folks than reported could be getting it, but it’s not that dangerous.

    If it is here, running rampant, then it’s a dud. False alarm. Just another winter bug … yes, the medically compromised & elderly are at risk, and we need to shelter/isolate Them, but the general population (economy, Civilization) is safe.

    Meanwhile, we brought back a batch of Americans from Wuhan, and a separate batch from the cruise ship in Japan (they of the Summer Olympics, and now all schools boarded up … *sigh*, Why couldn’t that happen to me!?)

    So our much-maligned Big Pharma got samples from Our bodies (Military BioLabs too), and they get that damn vaccine out here PDQ, Trump will have to beat less of the stuffing out of them, pat them on the back even. So yeah they’re johnny on it … plus the $X billions in sales doesn’t hurt.

    New diseases are a, if not the lead contender threat to humans … but by far & away most of these contenders prove to be pretenders. We go through the drill, because The Big One is very, very serious … but meanwhile, yeah, we’re just goin’ through the drill.

  2. I see a lot of foolish complacent mindsets. Jason appears to be wise enough to get prepared. Maybe he’s seen enough disease and hard times to understand repercussions of disease and disaster ( Alaska has a long history of it and is very isolated – remote people who can’t easily get medical care or replacement supply in the bush and villages even anchorage is isolated by lower 48 standards ) or he just has a better memory than most as many village s have massive graves from pre statehood. Some no longer exist due to early century flu . Disease wiped out whole villages. Best case was when some survived and filled orphanages . Tell the sick and dying they have nothing to fear . 2% or worse means there’s a possibility every one in America will have a Freind or relative that dies from corona the poor people will be hit way harder . The Chinese are warning of mutations that will raise the fatality rate Corona has a high rate of mutation . At a minimum everyone is likely to know of someone by name who dies and death is final and disease isn’t choosy . Add the kicker there is heavy evidence that this is a man engineered virus possible Chinese lab with a never seen makeup . Alledged to have similar parts to aids virus so may never fully leave your body with unknown consequences. Natural viruses are bad enough. This one may be a man made combo . I don’t want to be a guini pig. It’s different than gun violence. If you stay away from bad neighborhoods your risk of death goes way down . Not so with germs unless you totally avoid humanity. Not to mention odds of contracting will be higher than gun deaths . Jason is right . Economic fallout will endanger us all . In China it’s caused major supply shortages and some businesses are loosing everything. If China is any example 2 plus months without work minimum could apply , who among the Americans middle class can happily loose two months wages ? A major disruption of society. Due to manufacturing and supply chain issues it could take 1-2 decades for economic recovery. Without a vaccine the catastrophe is just beginning for China and eventually us. People who recognize the dangers and prepare are not fear mongers they are rational and sane . If you can’t learn from others / the dead Chinese what’s that say about your intelligence?

  3. I’m surprised at all this complicated stuff people are afraid of. I’m afraid of snakes and bigfoot. No snakes in Alaska. I’m not sure about bigfoot.

  4. “When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.”
    — Ralph Waldo Emerson

  5. Just like school shooters is an issue to be aware of but will likely not impact very many in any given year, we seem to crave fear. Like Rahm Emanuel said “You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”. If there isn’t a crisis at hand you can always manufacture one with enough waving of arms, jumping up and down, and panicked hollering. Sickeningly there are politicians attempting to make political hay out of this disease.

    According to the CDC, as of Friday February 28th there have been 15 confirmed case nationwide. This obviously does not count the 47 repatriated Americans who were put in quarantine upon their return from China and the Princess cruise ship from the risk assessment section on the CDC website “individual risk is dependent on exposure. For the general American public, who are unlikely to be exposed to this virus at this time, the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.”

    While we should all take the appropriate precautions for cold and flu season, at this point if you are more worried about Covid-19 you are worried about the wrong disease. The common flu killed an estimated 12,000-61,000 people per year over the last decade.

    Wash your hands, stop licking door knobs, don’t share pens, wash your hands, sneeze into the crook of your elbow, and wash your hands again.

    This is something to be aware of, not something to panic over, there are 15 confirmed cases in a country of more than 300,000,000.

  6. That’s why this corona virus is being blown out of proportion and weaponized by the left, because lets face it, stoking a fear bordering on hysteria and the crashing of our economy is probably the best thing that’s happened to them in the last three years.

    Personally, when it comes to “fear” in regards to the virus I’m far and away more concerned by the inevitable over-reaction and quarantines of indefinite duration. All I can say there is everyone should make sure that they have a month’s worth of the necessities in their pantries, and the bills paid up several months in advance.

    • Jason says: “All I can say there is everyone should make sure that they have a month’s worth of the necessities in their pantries, and the bills paid up several months in advance.”
      So much for ending our unfounded fears here in America…I guess Disaster Capitalism Propaganda is much more powerful than scientific logic these days?

      • Assuming I’ve decoded your post correctly:

        1–I think the fears of the coronavirus itself are overblown in terms of mortality rates; once all the facts are in I’m going to predict that mortality rates are significantly below 1.00%, posibly far below that.

        2–I highly recommend having supplies in the house (always a good idea, but alas so often not the case with most) to weather the inevitable over-reaction to the spread; it is inevitable that at some point you will be quarantined, regardless of the above point.

        What’s so hard for you guys with the liberal mindset to understand about this concept of optimistic preparedness? I know you’ve all been praying for some calamity that would actually to stick to the “bad orange man” but this is getting ridiculous.

      • Jason says:
        “It is inevitable that at some point you will be quarantined…”
        Yet you first said: “…this corona virus is being blown out of proportion and weaponized by the left”
        I must say this is one of your funnier comments to date.

      • Steve, you open to giving Trump some credit?
        “The United States signed a peace agreement with Taliban militants on Saturday aimed at bringing an end to 18 years of bloodshed in Afghanistan and allowing U.S. troops to return home from America’s longest war.”

  7. The first vaccines to covid 19 have been produced by our capitalist pharmaceutical companies for testing. Under bernie communism there are no pharmaceutical companies and that’s a “good thing”.

  8. I lost interest in this with the first paragraph. FDR offered his famous “fear itself” comment during his declaration of war against Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, not 1933 regarding the Great Depression Sheesh.

    • You’re wrong; the line goes at least as far back as his first inaugural speech. The phrase does not appear in the speech asking Congress to declare war on Japan. It’s better to be silent and be thought a fool than to type and remove all doubt.

    • you should have clicked the link. memory is badly fallible. i was actually thinking it was Churchill who first said it until i looked it up. the famous line is from ’33. it was later parrotted in many ways by many people

  9. I will say that being scared or fearful, was helpful in regards, to myself being cautious in my actions, as I fished the Copper River from ‘77-2017. When I first started 1-3 fisher drownings, each season, was the norm, in the PWS/CR area. As better equipment & boats were built, those deaths decreased to a current one every 2-3 seasons. Boats are still burning, sinking and grounding, though mandatory Coast Guard survival equipment has helped fishers live through the deadly incidents.

    On another note: I was reading last night, that hand sanitizers are flying off the shelves in every drug and grocery store in the US. Even Amazon is mostly out of stock, and the ones that are available, the price has skyrocketed. Evidently consumers do not realize, that this product only kills bacterial germs, not viruses. Also, the overuse of this product, starts to reduce one’s effectiveness against the germs. Wash your hands many times and do not touch your mucus membranes, that is what the CDC recommends. Good advice!
    Once again, Thanks Craig for a good article!

  10. Fear = vulnerable sucker$
    On a side note, the average Cuban makes $17/month. Cuban doctors, after a raise, make $44/month, all because of Communism/Socialism. I am just fear the Bern and the half of America who support a $17/month wage. I am sure the free healthcare is great though. Derps!

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