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11 March 2020updated 30 Jul 2021 9:40am

The contagious power of fear: why some believe that panic is a virus

Panic evokes the past, as well as offering nightmarish visions of the future. 

By Robert Peckham

The global spread of Covid-19 has created a sense of panic. But what is panic? Is it contagious, and, if so, how do we catch it? Is there a tipping point: an aggregation of small events that build to a critical threshold before panic erupts? 

By the 17th century, panic was defined as a sudden state of terror that produced irrational behaviours in people. In the aftermath of the Great Plague of Marseille in 1720 – the last major episode of bubonic plague in Europe – the physician François de Chicoyneau argued that “panic fear” had been responsible for the epidemic. He traced a causal relationship in which fear had created a mental imbalance that subsequently caused plague.

While de Chicoyneau’s ideas about “pestilential panic” gained little traction at the time, the notion that fear could have physical effects, and that panic could be as fast-spreading and dangerous as epidemics themselves, was revived in the 19th century. 

During the Industrial Revolution new ways of living with technology created novel forms of frenetic behaviour. In the 1890s, the French physician Gustave Le Bon noted that when people congregated in crowds “all emotions are very rapidly contagious, which explains the suddenness of panics”. Drawing on breakthroughs in bacteriology that attributed specific diseases to specific micro-organisms, Le Bon wrote: “Ideas, sentiments, emotions, and beliefs possess in crowds a contagious power as intense as that of microbes.” 

Panic was now understood as a form of contagion: it could spread; it was communicable in much the same ways as disease. The crowded spaces of the modern city were thought to be super-incubators of both disease-germs and contagious terror. When an influenza epidemic spread across Russia to Europe in 1889, circumventing the globe in four months, it became clear that panic could be stoked in new ways. Newspapers published sensational stories as they tracked the disease’s spread via the telegraph. The postal system came in for particular scrutiny, since it was feared that the flu attached itself to letters – a risk to both their recipients and to postal workers.

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The occurrence of simultaneous panics in different parts of the world raised the question as to whether panic was universal, as well as why some events triggered panic and others did not. The influenza pandemic of 1918-19, for example, produced little panic in India, where more than 12 million people are estimated to have died from it, as opposed to the bubonic plague pandemic at the end of the 19th century, which caused widespread alarm throughout the region. As the historian David Arnold has suggested, during the influenza pandemic the British colonial state did not overreact in its response. During the Third Plague crisis, however, draconian public health interventions produced panic in the population.

Twenty-first century epidemics have shown that panic may be shaped by local histories and traditions. In Hong Kong during the Sars outbreak in 2003, buildings where confirmed Sars victims lived were circulated online, leading to concerns about privacy and stigmatisation. These Sars lists were reminiscent of the “haunted houses” lists that feature on property market websites, warning buyers about inauspicious houses and apartments where residents had died from accident, murder or suicide. Economic concerns, beliefs and fears of infection may intersect to produce distinctive local moral panics.

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The cultural dimension of panic was recognised as a feature of the Ebola outbreak across West Africa between 2014 and 2016. As international agencies struggled to contain the epidemic, fear and mistrust sparked local rumours, including claims that health workers were responsible for spreading the disease, or that Ebola was the work of witchcraft. Meanwhile, Ebola panic in the US during this period amplified inherited cultural and racial prejudices, drawing on an othering of disease that recalled the racial prejudices of the HIV panic in the 1980s.

Panic evokes the past, as well as offering nightmarish visions of the future. During the US swine flu panic of 1976, the 1918 influenza pandemic was cited by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a worst-case scenario, prompting a rush to produce a vaccine that ended up causing more harm from side effects than the virus itself. (Several hundred people who received the shot reportedly suffered from the neurological disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome.)

But panic may also be induced by the prospect of an impending catastrophe. This was the case in 2005, when the world appeared to be on the cusp of an avian influenza pandemic that never materialised.

Panic has a long history and close association with epidemics. As populations across the world begin to stockpile food and disappear from public spaces, identifying common and distinguishing characteristics of past panics could be helpful as a first step in thinking more systematically about the nature of contagious fear, the forces that produce it, and the multiple forms of its global transmission.

Robert Peckham is professor in the humanities and medicine at the University of Hong Kong

This article appears in the 11 Mar 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down