Fear and Denial

About a week ago I woke up with a sore throat. Nothing outrageous – what felt like a little back drip, maybe from allergies, but I felt slightly achey, too. I’d been through periods of feeling somewhat unwell already over the course of the past four months, so I didn’t wonder too much about it, although I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind: what if it was COVID-19?

I’m not usually given to paranoia, which can at times be a strength, but the opposite can lead to denial, which is just as dangerous. For a week now, I’ve been living in denial about the possibility of having contracted COVID-19, going about my day, stuck at home, working and sleeping and all of that good stuff. But the feelings of slight unwellness didn’t go away, and this morning after my shower I thought I might be feeling slightly feverish, too.

So I made an appointment for tomorrow at a local urgent care, and … well, we’ll soon find out. But the thought processes in my head over the past week have, I think, taught me something about fear and denial.

I wouldn’t say that there’s much in this world that truly frightens me. I’m not scared to walk through a parking lot at night; I’m not scared of dying in a car crash; I don’t feel afraid of potentially threatening people most of the time. At most, I feel uneasy, perhaps afraid to act at times, but I don’t live in fear, for the most part, most of the time.

But I have to ask, of course, why I don’t live in fear. I mean, there are a lot of scary things out there in the world, and logically it makes sense – even from just a self-preservation perspective – to be afraid of them. Be afraid of alligators, be afraid of men with guns, be afraid of drunk drivers. These are real things, and they can really cause you harm. And I think the answer is that I largely deny these things entrance to my thoughts – I just don’t think about them, or consider the full extent of consequences of coming across them.

To an extent, I think this form of denial can be healthy; after all, if all of us worried all the time about all the things that can hurt us, we’d all be completely paranoid, and society would crumble. But taken to an extreme, and it can be almost as dangerous as thinking too much about things. On a personal level, my denial of the possibility of having COVID-19 could lead to a delay in treatment, which could lead to much worse complications. On a social level, it could be argued as outright irresponsible to my family and those I forcibly interact with (say, at the supermarket) to not have been tested sooner, as I walk through the world infecting all those around me (maybe).

And sometimes, we need to confront our denial the greater good of humanity. Denial is a strong coping mechanism to trauma, but it has its limitations. For example, there is a great deal of fear in the world right now around racism. Black communities fear, as they always have, that the protests and voices being raised now in the wake of George Floyd’s death will eventually be silenced, and they will continue to exist in a place where they fear for their lives because of the color of their skin.

But there are white people who are afraid, too. Afraid of the consequences. And I don’t mean in the sense that there are white people who are afraid black people will take their jobs, or steal their wives; I mean, there might be some, but no – the worse consequence of facing the racism in this country is that it is forcing people who would have otherwise lived in denial to see reality for what it is. White people who are afraid that, if they are forced to confront racism on their front lawn, it might reveal them to be racist themselves.

Think about it – the easiest way to deal with racism is to ignore it. Deny its existence; spout ‘all lives matter’ rhetoric and claim to be ‘colorblind’. Pretty much everyone, I think, is in agreement that racism is bad; but very few people are willing to admit that they might be bad themselves. Very few people have the courage to face their own racism, and to acknowledge that they are a part of the problem. But we have to – we have to, or we can’t be part of the solution.

So listen; if I can overcome my own denial about COVID-19 and accept that I need to get tested, then surely as a community, as a country, we can overcome our own denial of prejudice and racism and accept that we aren’t just part of the problem – we are the problem. And it’s a fixable one, too. It won’t be easy or quick, and will take check-ins every day to see how we’re doing in being allies to oppressed minorities. Some days we’ll do better than others. But if we can at the very least recognize our part – each one of us – in the systemic oppression of black and minority communities across the country, then perhaps things can slowly change for the better.

It’s okay to be afraid that you might have racist thoughts; it’s okay to be afraid of conflict, especially internal conflict. But the worse option is to continue living in denial.

Don’t live in fear; but don’t live in denial. There’s a happy medium.

Thoughts on COVID-19

There’s pretty much only one thing on people’s minds these days. I’ve seen anxiety, panic, hysteria, ignorance, apathy and dismissiveness around COVID-19, but there’s no denying that it’s here, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. (Indeed, it is already being addressed by most governments and businesses around the world.)

In a not-so-funny way, the overwhelming presence of COVID-19 is like a mental illness: a shadow across the mind that can’t be ignored, a thought that presents itself constantly before all others. Every thing you do, every action you take, you can’t help but wonder if you’re furthering your exposure to the virus.

I saw a co-worker go home sick yesterday. Just before he left, he mentioned to a fellow team member – whether in jest or not, I don’t know – that he thought he might have coronavirus. In my mind, that was an unacceptably irresponsible thing to do. Not because people shouldn’t know if he did, but because the way he presented the information – to a peer, in casual reference, and not to a manager or leader – led to a rapid spread of anxiety and panic throughout the entire team.

One of the things I’ve seen over the past few days is that in times of uncertainty, duress, and unprecedented fear, people want to be told what to do. They need reassurance. They need a strong, unwavering and certain leader who sets the record straight, tells the truth that people need to hear, and confronts the feelings of panic and hysteria that are brewing in people’s minds. I saw this at work when no leader was there to tell people how to react to a co-worker potentially having the virus; and I see it in the egregious panic-buying that is going on across the United States at virtually every supermarket in the country.

This level of conscientious command is missing entirely from the United States’ leadership currently. Within the past two weeks, the president has noted that the coronavirus will disappear “like a miracle”, that things were “getting much better in Italy”, and more or less downplayed any effect the virus will have on the US and its economy. Instead of actually leading, it feels more like panic and ignorance from the one person who, in theory, ought to be able to bring things together.

But at the same time, perhaps this isn’t quite such a bad thing; after all, mass hysteria and panic can be what allows democracies to turn into dictatorships. Capitalizing on people’s fear – justified or not – is an easy path to rationalize unchecked executive actions, and in times like this it becomes easier to abuse the power given to those in positions of high authority. So far all I’ve seen from the leadership of the country has been denial and scientific ignorance, which under the circumstances is probably about all that could have been expected.

What the spread of COVID-19 has demonstrated, however, is that the world at large is woefully unprepared to handle the proliferation of such an infectious and easily-communicable disease, and that perhaps it never can be. The world is incredibly fortunate that COVID-19 is not more fatal than it is, although current estimates might nonetheless be too low; were a disease as fatal as, say, ebola to become as transmissible as COVID-19, the world would be in a dire state. Even so, to contain the spread of a disease like this would mean shutting down all physical communication between states and countries, and in a global economy this could put many countries at risk of starvation as their imports dwindle, and poverty as their exports cease.

As the disease progresses, however, one thing that’s come to light is that there are very few places that have yet to suffer, and in this regard there is perhaps a chance for many of the world’s countries to unite in combatting this contagion. If out of hardship some positivity could be derived, then we should look to that light, rather than focus on the devastation left behind.

Or, like what seems to be happening in the United States, we could could become isolationist and leave the rest of the world to suffer in solitude. And in doing so, I think far more people will die.

From a global scale to a single individual, the spread of COVID-19 is a frightening prospect, and how we handle it as people will determine how we handle it as a society. If there is no leadership to be found from the government, then we’ll need to rely on our own resources: read scientific publications, seek out original research, take the precautions recommended by the World Health Organization and the CDC, and most of all, look after your own mental health. Don’t allow fear to drive you, but don’t ignore your own anxieties either; information is your best weapon.