Marc Siegel: COVID is on the way out but the other pandemic, fear, is still going strong


Fear is a strong emotion with a fierce grip that attaches itself to an object and doesn’t let go easily. And when it does let go, it may choose another object, just as irrational, yet just as persuasive.

I have been studying the massive controlling impact of fear commands on the human brain for many years. When you experience fear, your brain’s amydala signals the release of powerful stress hormones (fight or flight) which links to a deeply engrained fear memory system. 

A cycle of fear, once activated, is very hard to break. Fear-driven dogma and pseudo-religions based on fear have been the story of this pandemic. 

Keep in mind that some fears are justified, and can serve as a warning system against real dangers, while others are not, and cause unremitting anxiety.

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It was certainly warranted to be afraid of a mysterious deadly virus coming from China especially when the outbreak started in a city with a high security virology lab that studies bat coronavirus and works directly with the Chinese military. 

This doesn’t mean the SARS COV2 virus definitely comes from that lab, on the other hand, our scientists at CDC and NIH were too quick to trust their brethren who were under the thumb of the Chinese government, too willing to accept third hand information on the new killer virus when our own CDC was not allowed boots on the ground. 

A senior official at WHO told me that it is quite conceivable that COVID-19 started in that lab, and there are now reports of research scientists there getting sick in November 2019 and going to the hospital.

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Fear is the appropriate response, even today, to the possibility that this virus was manipulated in a lab and leaked out. Gain of function research to gauge a pathogen’s potential, is a serious threat to global health, and it was taking place in that lab, whether it led to COVID-19 or not.

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It also made sense to be afraid of the damage lockdowns and closures were going to do to our society, to our economic, physical, and emotional health.

But that’s where the value of our fear warning system ends. Unfortunately, fear has been used throughout the pandemic to control and manipulate us. 

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Certainly, it never made sense to close schools once we had determined that the risks of spread and disease were much lower, and it makes even less sense now, when everyone over the age of 12 has access to a powerful, safe, and effective COVID-19 vaccine. 

The superimposition of masking and other restrictions at summer camps at a time when the rest of society is opening up is cruel and contradictory.

In fact, throughout the pandemic fear of going maskless has been exaggerated and manipulated by politicians and the media. Though masks clearly have been shown to have a value in preventing spread of this aerosolized airborne virus especially in close quarters, the obsessive focus on masks has led to fear-driven masks of obedience, even though they have often been worn improperly. And now that even the overly cautious CDC has acknowledged that you don’t need to wear a mask in most instances once you have been vaccinated, nevertheless, fears of relinquishing masks persist, and many people describe removing them as feeling “naked.”

Fears of the incredible vaccines have also been overly politicized, social media driven, and difficult to overcome. 

I have studied the effects of fear for many years, and I have always utilized fear of the virus itself as a major motivator for vaccine compliance. 

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The severity of the SARS COV 2, in terms of both short term and longer term multi-organ inflammation which is not entirely predictable, makes the utility of these vaccines a no brainer. But fear interferes in far too many cases. 

Public discourse regarding the pandemic is also far too ripe with fear terms – variants and mutations are words and ideas which scare us, even if our vaccines prevent most if not all current variants from infecting us.

The fact is, we are on our way out of this pandemic here in the U.S. We need to finish vaccinating a larger majority of our population, and simultaneously turn our attention to the rest of the world, where massive outbreaks in Brazil, India, and potentially Africa, are a big problem, even as our own case numbers, hospitalizations and death rate fall to lows we haven’t seen in a year. 

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At a time when we should be celebrating the path forward, too many citizens are clinging to their fears while some state and local governments are still too slow to relieve their mandates. 

There are two pandemics, and only one of them is due to the virus directly. The other, the fear that has resulted, has led to a pandemic of depression, anxiety, drug abuse, hesitation, and distrust that will be much more difficult to heal. 

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