This pandemic of fear

Fear is one of the principal threads running through the story of the coronavirus pandemic, and so is the reluctance of many of us to articulate and deal with our fears. 

Fear induced by the pandemic engulfs the mighty and the lowly, from President Trump down to the working-class John and Jane Does.

One suspects that the president’s frequently unhinged reaction stems from his fear that his reelection, once considered a near-sure thing, now looks like anything but, cracking under the weight of the death toll of the pandemic, soon to reach 100,000, and the cratering economy. 

For John and Jane, the fears are more immediate: Fear of losing their home, of getting sick without health insurance, or just going broke, all practically overnight. Some of John and Jane’s panicked responses might be as irrational as the president’s: To hoard toilet paper or, at the other extreme, to say ‘the hell with it’ and defy stay-at-home and other precautions.

A friend in San Miguel recently complained, and I sympathized, that pandemic fears have contaminated all aspects of her daily life. Going shopping for groceries used to be an innocent pastime, an occasion for  friends to exchange hi-how-are-you’s and idle gossip by the coffee bar. Now “going to the Mega” involves a gauntlet of face masks, spritzes of hand sanitizer and waving at acquaintances from a safe distance. Those feeling most vulnerable, and afraid, just have groceries delivered and never leave home.

Safety first, even while protesting safety measures. 

Some try to hide their fears with bravado, with pretend-indifference to the general alarm, though they still make sure to take their N-95 masks, purchased months ago, when they venture outside their home. Just in case.

Also, just in case, protesters against anti-lockdowns and other government-imposed precautionary measures, took to the streets in Miami, wearing face masks, gloves, and one carried a spray bottle (of hand sanitizer?).

I savored the irony, though to some extent, also sympathized with these folks’ impatience at being cooped up in the house for weeks on end. In a sense, they are attempting to deal with their fears through angry defiance.

In fact, the stay-at-home environment soon can become an echo chamber, magnifying our anger, frustrations and fears. Rational thinking can give way to catastrophizing, as our imaginations run wild. 

Fear is one of the most basic human emotions. The refrain “do not be afraid” appears hundreds of times in the Bible, exhorting us to confront our fears by putting our trust in God.

Buddhists suggest that we deal with fear, and the attendant suffering, by mindfully focusing our attention on the moment, rather than obsessing, or clinging to, the past, which cannot be revisited  much less edited, or the future, which is equally beyond our control.

During these long weeks, nay, months, of isolation from face encounters with friends and family (for which Zoom “meetings” are a poor substitute), I’ve been forced to focus on my fears and how to deal with them.

Talking with Stew the other day, over our first cup of coffee in the morning, I said: “You know, this is pandemic thing is scary.” Stew acknowledged his own fears. We each talked about the prospect of the pandemic going on indefinitely, and how it might affect our physical and mental health, plus other what-ifs. 

Explicitly acknowledging one’s fears, whether by talking with someone—or even talking to yourself—has to be the first step to deal with fear.

Yet, our first impulse, particularly among men, is to avoid the subject. Don’t be a chicken. Don’t be a nervous Nellie. What kind of a pussy are you?

Besides, talking about one’s fears can turn morbid, as our apprehensions intertwine with someone else’s, sometimes resulting in shared anguish rather than resolution or clarification. Who needs that?

Who’s worried about Covid-19?: Taking advantage of the lockdown
of a village in Wales, a group of wild goats went for a stroll in the
 downtown shopping area, and ate some of the flowers. 

Perhaps that’s why most people I talk with just say they’re “fine, fine, fine,” when I ask how they are holding up under “house arrest,” and quickly change the subject.

But another San Miguel friend, admitted that lack of social contact is making him feel very uncomfortable. Should he wonder why he’s so afraid to be by himself?

Avoidance or denial, though, is hardly the most productive way to deal with fear. Maybe most of my friends are indeed fine and carefree as they navigate through the present crisis, but I doubt it.

When I’ve tried to confront my own fears, getting sick, and dying, as the result of the coronavirus or of any multitude of maladies than can fell a 72-year-old, immediately rises to the top. 

I take infinite comfort in the loving company of Stew, and the good fortune of living in a nook of the world where the impact of the pandemic—so far—has been relatively mild.

Still, instinctively reaching for the face mask, along with my wallet and phone, is a reminder of the potential risks lurking just outside the gates of our small ranch.

I’m growing impatient with all the government-imposed restrictions too, but not quite enough to ignore them.

A few kilometers from us on the way to town, in the mud hole of a place called Los Rodríguez, three cases were diagnosed this weekend. No one knows where the virus came from, but a Mother’s Day fiesta is suspect.

Closer to home, in the village where Félix lives, the locals this weekend held horse races, the crowded festivities no doubt lubricated with plenty of beer. What pandemic?

I also wonder if throwing open the doors of restaurants and bars in San Miguel, as essential as that may be to the local economy, may not increase the risk of contagion, as hordes of tourists arrive from Mexico City, where the Covid-19 infections and fatalities are widespread.

How long before the coronavirus comes closer to us, safely isolated as we think we are? The answer is, who knows?

I’ve become convinced that with regard to the pandemic, there is such a thing as too much information. We’re swamped with unfiltered news and reports, a great deal of it idiotic conspiracy theories (is Bill Gates responsible for the pandemic?) and plain garbage posing as “news.” All this feeds into the atmosphere of fear that permeates the current crisis.

First Draft News is a project, founded in 2015,
“to fight mis- and disinformation online.”

Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet and playwright, once said that “[T]he truth is rarely pure and never simple.” Wilde would be pleased to find how true his admonition still rings, 120 years after his death.

If you’re really diligent, along with news reports you could visit fact-checking sites, such as, especially its “Coronavirus Collection,”  or the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, before you believe anything you read.

You’d be astonished at the blizzard of lies and misinformation triggered by the pandemic crisis, and the fact that, although most of it comes from right-wing sources, including the White House, the liberal-leaning media is not at all immune from publicizing stuff that is either wrong or sensationalized speculation.

If you’re lazy like me, however, the most practical filter might be to limit the intake of news to one hour a day. I prefer mornings with the New York Times or perhaps a couple of magazines like The Atlantic or the New Yorker, and avoid television news channels of any stripe.

That news diet is not going to completely placate my natural fears, by a long shot, but at least it won’t feed into them.

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