Roger Mallett [Staff author].
I like to think of myself as a fairly rational and calm person, but in the last few weeks, I have felt close to tears. Since the coronavirus has taken hold, I have seen mass hysteria on an unprecedented scale.
Never before in my lifetime have I witnessed empty supermarket shelves, people walking around wearing masks and daily updates from the government. It seems as if we are living in some kind of nightmare. Common-sense no longer applies. Rules are turned upside down.
In times of hardship and struggle, we pull together, we hug each other and visit our family and friends more often. However, we can’t do that with this new threat. Instead, we must self-isolate and socially distance ourselves.
Our normal routines and daily lives have to follow a strict safety code. No more unnecessary travel. Only shop for essential products. If you do go out, stay 2 metres apart from other people. It’s enough to bring on mass hysteria.
What Is Mass Hysteria?
It is a psychological condition shared by groups of people who feel threatened by a certain event or person. There are many examples of mass hysteria throughout history.
Examples of mass hysteria
Salem Witch Trials
In late February 1692 in a small village called Salem, Massachusetts, two young girls began having fits. They would twitch and shriek uncontrollably. The parish and community blamed the fits on witchcraft and singled out women who had supposedly afflicted these young girls.
Soon the numbers started to rise and eventually many more were showing signs of witchcraft. In 1693, more than 200 women had been accused of witchcraft. In fact, 30 were convicted and 19 were executed.
Remember, only two girls were ill, but it ended up with countless of women being held captive and subject to ridiculous ‘witch tests’.
The Louisiana Twitching
Talking of twitching, in early 1939, one Louisianan schoolgirl developed a strange twitch in her leg. Suddenly the twitching spread to others. The number of cases rose sharply but no doctor could pinpoint the problem.
All tests came back negative. Meanwhile more and more girls were succumbing to this strange leg-twitching phenomena.
Parents removed their children from schools, refusing to allow them back until the cause was known. After a few weeks, the incidences of leg-twitching seemed to calm down, but what had caused the outbreak in the first place?
Those who investigated narrowed it down to one girl – Helen – who had the first symptoms. Helen couldn’t dance. In fact, she hated dance classes but was worried that her boyfriend would be tempted by another girl who was a better dancer than her.
She pretended to have an uncontrollable twitch in her leg so that she could get out of dance class and have a ready made excuse to her boyfriend.
The Bin Laden Itch
After the tragic 9/11 attacks of 2001, reports started to surface of children complaining of a strange skin rash. The rash could last from just a few hours to a couple of weeks. But doctors and parents were none the wiser.
Some parents started to speculate that this could be a result of a bio terrorist attack. Remember, at the time we were all terrified about viewing the broadcast of the two aeroplanes.
People started calling it the Bin Laden Itch after an extraordinary number of elementary students appeared to come down with this rash. As more and more children fell victim to the rash, so did the panic and hysteria begin to rise. So what was the cause?
The Center for Disease Control investigated. They found that because of the initial fear of a biological attack, children and parents had been paying closer attention to their skin. More cases were reported and numbers rose. In fact, it was these rising numbers that started the mass hysteria.
The problem with mass hysteria
So what about today and the virus that everyone is talking about? Has mass hysteria led to panic buying in supermarkets? Does the constant updating of cases and deaths help to fuel our anxiety? Are the orders from governments beginning to scare us?
It’s really not surprising that people are becoming hysterical. We feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of events when we are bombarded with information from many different sources.
However, despite the fact that we are all living in very crazy times, there is a real problem when it comes to mass hysteria.
- Mass hysteria can lead us to believe things that are simply not true.
- It can also fool us into thinking the problem is much worse than it really is.
- It can change our behaviour and make us act foolishly or selfishly.
- It leads to the spread of misinformation which only fuels our anxiety even further.
How to cope with mass hysteria
It is true that this pandemic is more deadly than the recent outbreak of swine flu in 2009, but that doesn’t mean we need to panic.
Take, for example, the SARS epidemic in 2003 which killed around 10% of those who caught it. Not to mention the MERS outbreak, which killed 34% of those infected.
So far, this virus is not as deadly as SARS and MERS. Today there are around 600,000 confirmed cases and a mortality rate of 4.4%.
And what does this tell us? Well, with SARS and MERS we weren’t seeing massive shutdowns and forced changes to our behaviour. But the facts and figures speak for themselves. Coronavirus is no more deadly than the last few recent epidemics the world has had to face.