By Learning to Let Go of Mass Hysteria, We Can Bring an End to the Destructive COVID-19 Panic

Our species has been subjected to coronaviruses since at least the 1930s, when this virus was first identified. It likely existed long before it was discovered; it’s not as if humans suddenly started catching cold in the twentieth century! It was shown in the 1960s that the coronavirus is responsible for cold-like illness when test subjects are exposed to the virus. Three strains were named in that decade and, in the 1990s, several variants of coronavirus were named using letters of the Greek alphabet. (I review this history here: Faking Genius for Power and Profit.)

NBC News is reporting today that the “CDC finds first handful of U.S. omicron cases have been mostly mild.” Omicron is a variant indicating evolution of the SARS coronavirus (likely lab-enhanced) towards the typical coronaviruses that you and I have been exposed to our entire lives. It’s also likely that omicron is mild because it’s infecting people previously infected with coronavirus. Previous infection by coronavirus, as with other cold viruses, such as adenovirus and rhinovirus, provides antibodies that are protective against many variants of a virus. As doctors and parents know, children normally get several colds every year and coronavirus is standard among those.

I am telling you this because, while it is true that coronavirus is here to stay and that we will have to live with it, this claim is misleading since the coronavirus has always been with us. We were subjected to an especially virulent form of a virus that we have almost certainly encountered before, which we experienced as a cold, if we experienced any symptoms at all. Even with SARS-CoV-2, the experience of most people is cold-like or asymptomatic. The severity of the disease never warranted the panic with which it has become associated. (I have discussed the reasons for this in numerous essays on Freedom and Reason.)

One difference between previous coronavirus infections and the present situation is that the invention of the PCR test that allows detection of a virus in people with mild symptoms and no symptoms. Testing thus allows a cold virus to be redefined as a serious infection that potentially causes death, even though the risk of death for a healthy individual is near zero. People who experienced no symptoms were told they had a dangerous disease on the basis of a test they would never have otherwise taken if it were not for the COVID-19 panic. Parents are told they must vaccinate children with novel mRNA technology to protect them from a virus that presents no threat to them. And many parents dutifully stood their children in line for jabs.

Vector pop art illustration paradoxically used by the College Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Penn State to sell COVID-19 panic. See Use of conservative and social media linked with COVID-19 misinformation. The University of Wisconsin-Green Bay aped Penn State in its most recent Common CAHSS.

The combination of the PCR test and general ignorance of coronavirus, along with constant hyping of dire but rare outcomes, allowed authorities and experts to portray the ordinary as extraordinary and generate global panic. If we don’t acknowledge this fact and admit to ourselves that coronaviruses, like adenoviruses and rhinoviruses, are standard cold viruses in our environment, and that they are not only no big deal but necessary for proper development of our immune systems, we will continue to behave in ways that are detrimental to public health. This is especially true for children, who need to be exposed to pathogens to develop normally physiologically and for whom the risk of injury from the vaccine is far greater than risk from the disease itself.

The notion that vaccines are the solution to the problems of diseases is an extreme position that we must resist. We don’t need to vaccinate for viruses generally, as most viruses are mild and we have evolved over millions of years an immune system to deal with them. We do not vaccinate for other cold viruses, such as adenoviruses and rhinoviruses (although I am concerned that Big Pharma will roll out vaccines for those, as well, and a large proportion of parents will line their children up for the jabs). The elderly (those over sixty) and those with certain preexisting conditions could benefit from the vaccine for SARS-CoV-2. But most people won’t. And just as people did not need the vaccine for coronaviruses over the last almost one hundred years that we have known about coronaviruses, there will be no need to vaccinate against coronaviruses going forward.

The government agencies, medical-industrial complex, and the corporate media treating coronaviruses as novel and dangerous pathogens in our environment does not stand in place of the science and reason and history that tells us that coronaviruses have been endemic to human populations for almost a century as a known pathogen in our environment and that they are generally harmless (if not annoying). It is irrational to think the authorities of a monopoly capitalist society could stand in place of science and reason. However, it is precisely this irrationality that provides a ready source with which to manufacture modern-day moral panics.

Understanding Moral Panic

One of the most important activities of sociological work is the identification of moral panics and situations of mass hysteria, a problem we call social contagion, where a changed definition of a normal thing or activity in our environment causes a significant proportion of the population prone to irrational thoughts and behavior to panic and think and behave even more irrationally. However, irrationality can serve as means to rational ends. Moral panics are often useful towards certain goals, such as financial gain and obedience to authority.

Moral panics may be generated around almost anything. You may remember the Satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s, especially remarkable given that they occurs in modern secular societies. The Satanic panic remains one of the most notorious manifestations of mass hysteria in American history. Pushers of the panic asserted without evidence the existence of a terrifying phenomenon they described as “Satanic ritual abuse.” They said it was occurring in daycare centers across North America and even in Europe. Scores of people suffered on the account of the satanic scare, not from ritual abuse, of course, but from the hysteria surrounding it.

There were complex cultural and societal reasons for the satanic ritual scare, but the salient point to make here is that cultural and societal factors, generally inaccessible to ordinary people without social scientific training or curiosity, were interpreted as the presence of transcendent evil by those in authority. In this case, the interpretation was provided by moral entrepreneurs using faith-belief in religion to translate anxiety and trepidation into a meaningful public response. Likewise, there are complex cultural and societal reasons for the present moral panic surrounding COVID-19. These are being translated by moral entrepreneurs, as well, this time by those in business firms and governmental agencies. They generate panic by exploiting popular faith-belief in scientism, a religious-like attitude or ideology among the science-illiterate that leverages scientific-sounding jargon to manufacture gravity around claims that are beneficial to those manufacturing panic.

I called this a moral panic in March of 2020, and nothing has occurred to cause me to change that assessment (see When a Virus Goes Viral). Indeed, just today, reported in the Israel newspaper Haaretz, we hear news that, in an attempt to encourage the children’s vaccination drive, Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, warned his cabinet that two British schoolboys died of omicron. In fact, these boys had died of the virus well before the new variant was reported. Moreover, as statistics across Europe and North America make clear, influenza is far deadlier to children than the most virulent variants of SARS-CoV-2 yet there is no vaccine mandate for the flu vaccine, which despite having a superior safety profile compared to the COVID-19 vaccine, is just as leaky and unreliable. Also today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson reported one case of an individual who died with the omicron variant, and then asked the public to put aside reports of mild infection and receive a booster shot of a vaccine that has proven to cover little to no immunity to SARS-CoV-2.

The imposition of external demands and rules has given the present moral panic a hard shell that is difficult to crack. The satanic ritual scare relied upon inner compulsion born of religious faith commitment. But it never gripped a majority of the population, despite lasting years across a fourth of the planet’s geography. The COVID-19 hysteria is not only an expression of an inner compulsion to cower in the face of a virus, but it is global and externally imposed by authorities in both the public and the private sector. The satanic ritual scare is rather insignificant compared to the COVID-19 panic. The actions of governments have greatly magnified the harm caused by the virus, actions that have objectively caused far greater harm across societal institutions—the economy, the family, individual and human rights—that the reaction to fantasized satanic rituals ever could.

But we don’t have to hang onto mass hysteria. To be sure, it feels overwhelming for both those who continue to support the lockdowns, the mandates, and passports, and those who oppose the authoritarianism these impositions signal. But we can learn to let go of the panic, and begin pushing back against it, by understanding that it is just that, a panic, and that those who seek and find in mass hysteria financial gain and obedience to authority do not represent our best interests. We need to reclaim our autonomy and dignity and overthrow the regime of fear. Knowledge is power. But only potentially. You have to act on that knowledge to change the situation.

Published by

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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