In the age of coronavirus: caution and fear go hand in hand

A person wearing a face mask walks along Wall Street after further cases of coronavirus were confirmed in New York City, New York, U.S., March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

NEW YORK – The coronavirus outbreak or pandemic, whatever you want to term it, has made one thing clear: this is also what could happen if humans were to find alien life on another planet – in the form of rogue bacteria, and bring it back home. Devastation need not come only in the popular form of laser-beaming, super gun-toting humanoid-shaped unfriendly aliens alighting from spaceships on Earth.

The world as we know when we cheerily celebrated New Year’s only just over two months ago is not the same as today; at least, for those individuals and communities who are in the grip of the coronavirus, caught in its health complications.

More than four thousand people are dead, more than 100,000 more infected. Tens of thousands of individuals and families are now confined indoors to government mandated quarantines. Neighbors shun them, strangers in hazmat suits periodically visit them to check on their well-being. Health screening lines are more intimidating than immigration counters at airports.

The growing rate of infections across the swath of the United States, with hot spots emerging not just in the rich suburbs of Seattle in Washington and Westchester County in New York, but also pockets of more than 30 states, is worrisome to say the least.

The question on everybody’s mind, as the crisis continues to loom larger like a balloon slowly being inflated, is: will the United States and developed nations in western Europe go in for draconian measures like what China did at the peak of their coronavirus crisis – quarantine more than a hundred million people in a number of cities, shutter and board uncooperative people in neighborhoods, drag sick people to quarantine camps, shut down a nation.

Humor on social media with viral photos and memes of emptied out chain and grocery stories, and lamentations of sold out specialty N95 respirator masks and Purell brand hand sanitizers, have given way to trepidation and silence, as the virus like a slow churning tsunami slowly approaches closer to one’s neighborhood. People in Westchester Country know they have been invaded.

The Boston Globe this week examined life inside the fearful bubble, describing how anxiety about the virus is making “us” crazy – “us” being those who are stocking up on dry goods and otherwise not living life as usual, said a column in The Washington Post.

“You know what’s worse than the virus – the anxiety,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a news conference on Saturday, where he declared a state of emergency for New York.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has set up a resource page on coronavirus anxiety to offer tips and strategies from mental health professionals.

“Just this week, I’ve probably had three to four people without any prompting from me say: ‘Hey should I be worrying about this?'” said Robert McLean, an internal medicine physician and rheumatologist at Northeast Medical Group of Yale New Haven Health and president of the American College of Physicians, reported the Post.

“We want people to stay as calm and rational as they can be,” McLean told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Easier said than done, though.

There are daily drastic measures being put in place in communities: school and university closing campuses, shifting to online classes; all sporting and extra-curricular activities, including inter-school, regional and state championships cancelled or postponed in majority of schools across the US; public transportation companies assuring customers that ‘deep cleansing’ is being done daily (leading to the question of how safe are those seats between the cleanses, how many hours are they effective for), and large public and private gatherings now frowned upon.

As daily life is disrupted, turn lopsided, 401Ks and retirement plans too are put into jeopardy with stocks on Wall Street nose diving almost daily to abysmal depths.

Reuters said a report from Bank of America Merrill Lynch compared the coronavirus to a “slow-moving train wreck” where the “market comes slowly and progressively to the realization of the magnitude of the events unfolding.”

Investors in the coming week will look to a raft of US data, including on small business optimism and consumer prices, to gauge what kind of shape the US economy was in last month, before the coronavirus started spreading so widely and quickly. But to ordinary folks it seems nothing will be normal and OK till the virus disappears.

The most serious threat to the economy may not come from the amount of cases or deaths, but rather the toll that disruptions to daily life, curtailed travel activity and possible government restrictions could take, analysts at Oxford Economics said, reported Reuters.

In the aftermath of 9/11, there were no takers for the city’s real estate. That front is still intact, though interest has waned, said an expert.

Steve Kalifowitz, the president of listing website, told the website curbed the impact on local real estate is “very much a wait and see game.” But the website’s users have indicated that they are a bit spooked, with more time spent surveying properties online and less time contacting agents and visiting listings over the last two weeks, according to user surveys and interviews. Those home hunters, Kalifowitz says, are also spending less time looking at properties for sale.

As the number of cases rise in New York, some home sellers may become skittish when it comes to open houses. Kalifowitz says those fears could eventually lead to a reduction in inventory, with nervous sellers potentially pulling their properties until the outbreak wanes.

With social outings at a minimum, it’s the eateries in New York which have faced the brunt of the slowdown.

Forbes reported the coronavirus has emptied Chinatowns in major cities, hurting local businesses due to unfounded fears. Even beyond Chinatown enclaves, Chinese restaurants are suffering from slow business, related to xenophobia as well as the decrease in travel and tourism currently impacting the global economy.

Simone Tong, chef and owner of New York’s Little Tong Noodle Shop, offered this logical advice: “Even some of my Chinese friends probably won’t go to Chinatown, because they have this fear. I feel like this fear is wrong. Everybody has fear. When fear happens, it’s illogical. It’s unreasonable. Some people have less fear. Life goes on. Despite this negative climate we have to stay positive, because that’s how we get through life.”

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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