When it's time to panic
As Matt Yglesias recently pointed out, the term ‘panic’ has a negative connotation:
I’m not going to quibble with Yglesias’s claim, as he correctly describes how people think of this term. Nonetheless, I do insist that panic is often appropriate, if we define ‘panic’ in the way that the state uses the term. Indeed throughout history, states often justify evil policies by claiming that they are lying to the public in order to prevent “panic”, as if the state is somehow smarter than the public. In most cases, the opposite is true.
Lots of old people living in the New York/New Jersey area died because the Trump administration (and to be fair, local Democratic leaders as well) tried to prevent panic. Here’s Politico:
The emails and transcripts detail how in the early days of 2020 Trump and his allies in the White House blocked media briefings and interviews with CDC officials, attempted to alter public safety guidance normally cleared by the agency and instructed agency officials to destroy evidence that might be construed as political interference.
The documents further underscore how Trump appointees tried to undermine the work of scientists and career staff at the CDC to control the administration’s messaging on the spread of the virus and the dangers of transmission and infection. . . .
Several former high-level Trump officials who worked on the administration’s response have said publicly after the fact that they did not want to panic the American public.
The specific worry of the Trump administration was that panic would cause people to stop going out in public and pull back on consumption, perhaps driving the economy into a deep recession. Eventually the truth came out and the public did exactly what was feared. And not just in the US, but also in most other countries, including Sweden. By this time, however, thousands of older residents of nursing homes in New York and New Jersey had already become infected and needlessly died.
My mother and stepfather are still alive, because their apartment complex in Tucson (which caters to the old) did understand the risk of Covid in time to panic, to take precautions. As a result, only a handful of the hundreds of people in their complex became infected, right up until today.
I’ve read a number of articles where the reporter interviews doctors and nurses who have treated Covid patients. The doctors and nurses often complain that even many people in intensive care claim that Covid is just a hoax. A bit more panic would have been helpful for those patients.
On the other hand, last spring I predicted that just as we underreacted at the onset of Covid, we would overreact toward the end of the pandemic. Sure enough, excessive Covid restrictions remain in place in many areas, despite the widespread availability of vaccines. So not only can we have too little panic, we can also have too much panic.
I always try to adopt just the right amount of panic.