COVID-19 and Chronic Stress Response

In New York, 15,302 people are said to have died from COVID-19. (It’s not that many, but let’s accept the number.) A new study out today estimates that at least 2.7 million New Yorkers have had the virus. That is a death rate of 0.56%. What have I been saying on this blog? If you haven’t yet, read my blog posts.

The public thinking associated COVID-19 is astounding. Mind numbingly idiotic, to be frank about it. There’s a virus. It sickens a small proportion of those it infects. It kills a small percentage of those it sickens. Like other viruses. The flu, for instance. Nothing novel there. So, let’s shut down the economy, bankrupt scores of businesses, throw millions of people out of work and into poverty, causing them to lose investments, housing, and healthcare, and go hungry. That’ll take care of the problem.

The lack of foresight to see that when you do something like “flatten the curve” you are going to at the same time affect everything else is mind-blowing. Everything is interconnected. It’s why we call it a social system. Humans depend on a working economy—the material basis for their existence—for a stable society. For all of capitalism’s faults, which are many, some of which can be tweaked by progressive government, disrupting capitalism by shutting down production and commerce is going to hurt not only the most vulnerable in our society, but those whose relative affluence has rendered the struggles of the poor largely peripheral to their concerns. The resulting consciousness won’t be an exercise in the sociological imagination but a bunch of rightly angry people who will double down on self-interest, forced to the survival rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy.

For now, polls indicate that most Americans think shutting down social life is a good idea. One poll finds that a large majority think people shouldn’t be able to move freely outside. So maybe there is a virus out there that scientists haven’t yet identified that works, or a fungus, like that zombie-ant fungus (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis) that invades the ganglia of ants, taking over their bodies and directing their behavior, making them robots for the fungus’s own purposes.  This unidentified virus makes humans lumber to destructive signals as dumb herd animals. Only in the present case, other humans don’t take the zombie-humans and dump them outside the colony to keep others from being similarly affected like the wise ants do, but rather embrace the zombie spirit and become themselves zombies. I’m not a religious man, but I pray I never contract that virus.

When people get panicked and enter the “fight or flight” mode, the acute stress response or hyperarousal state, the general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system that produces a hormonal cascade of neurotransmitters, among them catecholamines, our brain’s native amphetamines, they become hyper-focused on one thing to the exclusion of everything else. Like a drowning person, tunnel vision pushes context and its interrelated and complex exchanges to the peripheral where they vanish from consideration. 

Over the past decade, excluding the present year, as many as nearly half a million Americans have died from influenza, with a yearly average of 50 thousand victims. There is not a lot of variation in deaths from year to year; in other words, yearly frequencies hover around the average, although over the last several years, that number has been higher than the average. The CDC says the current number of flu deaths is half the average of the previous period, something like a third of what it was last year. This is a suspicious claim. The predominant flu strain this season is H1N1pdm09, so named because of the flu scare of 2009, when it was a novel influenza type A. Remember that? That was a pandemic, too. Today, we are seeing pneumonia case without an identified cause being attributed to COVID-19. But we do not know if these deaths are from SARS-CoV-2 or from H1N1pdm09 or from some other influenza virus, or even from rhinovirus or another coronavirus. 

I tell my students in my research methods classes that an ambiguous or unanswered survey items must be recorded as missing data. A careful researcher who is not imposing his agenda on the data does not guess what a person answered on an item if it is unclear or unanswered. Missing data is missing data. If you have not tested a person for SARS-CoV-2, then you can’t put his death in the COVID-19 category. You can only designate his death as a pneumonia death if that is indeed what he died of. The source of the pneumonia may not even be viral. It may be the result of a bacterial infection. That they are guessing the cause of death, tells us that they are not testing people who sick. How do you know what a person has and determine the course of treatment if you don’t try to determine the cause? What we are seeing from government and public health officials looks a lot like an epic case of fraud. Yet fear has pushed critical thinking out beyond the horizons of the present. We may very well find people asking these obvious questions in the future. But the current attitude is causing the damage now.

People must ask themselves, when possibly more than sixty thousand people died in in 2018-2019 from the flu—that was just last year—why didn’t we shelter-in-place then? I don’t remember any news stories at all about these deaths. Scores of children were killed by influenza that season, as well. Why were the human beings suffering and dying then so unimportant that didn’t even merit our mere awareness of their fate? Americans took it in stride. Why are viral deaths so bad now that Western nations had to sink the world into depression? Why are people not thinking about the consequences? They’re panicked. Tunnel vision. They are moving with the herd off a cliff.

My readers do realize that the United States is the OPEC of agriculture and that the collapse of food distribution systems means people who need food won’t get food? Even from aid agencies? Did the experts think about that? They see crops rotting in the fields and think, “Well, that’s just too bad?” Many hungry people won’t live long enough to get the virus on its next trek around the planet because they will starve to death first. At the end of 2019, 135 million people were living with acute hunger. Acute hunger is the most extreme and life threatening form of hunger. It involves severe undernourishment and is reflected in starvation and wasting. And death. The BBC reports that, with many countries around the world enforcing quarantine, the number in acute hunger is likely to rise to 265 million.

The disruption of supply chains because of the global economic shutdown has made sufficient amounts of pesticides unavailable to those regions affected by locusts. Now locusts are eating food meant for people and livestock. People are having to attempt to physically chase off the locust, running around screaming and banging pans, but hungry locus are not easily dissuaded from eating crops and invading villages. The scenes look apocalyptic. Compounding the problem is that the next generation of locusts won’t be nipped in the bud and successive waves will be hundreds of times larger than the current wave, which is unusually large.

Kenyans attempting to drive away locusts bent on destroying their crops

Is lack of food a “third world problem” and the residents in developed countries not getting a virus that is for most people is cold-like or presents with no symptoms at all too much to bear? I hear people scolding those who would sacrifice lives for the economy. Aren’t they sacrificing lives out of fear of a virus? 

The catecholamines principally involved in the acute stress response are epinephrine and norepinephrine. They work like meth in your brain. It’s why people like to be scared when they know they can find relief from the fear. The hormonal cascade associated with acute stress response also works other hormones. One of them is cortisol, the stress hormone. The flight or fight syndrome is supposed to be temporary, to get the organism away from danger or to confront it. Once the danger is gone or vanquished, the organism’s sympathetic nervous system returns to normal. But sometimes the danger—or the perception of danger—persists, and so does the body’s response to it, and the stress of this damages the organism physically and mentally. We must emphasize that the popular phrase “fight or flight” leaves out another phenomenon associated with acute stress response: freeze. It is, in fact, the “fight, flight, or freeze” response. Sheltering in place under COVID-19 fear has provoking little fight in the public, except where they can take to social media and scold their “friends” for trying to live normally. It’s flight and freeze that marks what has become a chronic stress response. 

People should take the circumstances of house arrest to ponder the following: shelter-in-place while the world collapses all around you means you will soon have no place in which to shelter. In the meantime, consider new locks for your doors. Maybe get a gun. Enjoy your rush. The high will wear off soon enough. 

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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