Panic Nation: how the mind can wreak havoc amid virus

8 March 2020

Coronavirus has country gripped in uncertainty

In what appeared a futile bid to jettison irrational fear of how the Coronavirus might affect Zimbabwe, President Emmerson Mnangagwa stepped up, a day after the first Coronavirus case was confirmed in South Africa, to announce that the country was halting internation­al travel. Minimise international travel, he said. I giggled.

Why bother, I wondered. Much of the travel between Zimbabwe and South Af­rica, for example, is not through airports or manned borders. The porous, coloni­al fence that has separated families for centuries hardly makes for a border. So, if South Africa has its first case of Coro­navirus, that first case surely applies to both countries.

Zimbabwe doesn’t have to wait for its own – we are one. Not in terms of the fuzzy, at times nebulous notions of one Afrika for Afrikans – but literally. If Mnangagwa and President Cyril Rama­phosa can’t stop the unregulated flow of people across the Limpopo River, there’s hardly a point for the pretense at manag­ing cross-border flow of the virus.

When Nigeria, too, recorded its first case of Coronavirus last week, we ran an editorial in this newspaper saying it was now no longer a question of if, but when we will get our own confirmation. I hate that we were proved right – and so soon. But it was an obvious point.

So as Mnangagwa and Ramaphosa is­sued necessary but futile exhortations for calm, their subjects were spiralling into a frenzy. Some parents withdrew their children from school. Travel to countries not affected by the virus were canned. Joburgers rushed to buy out sanitising stock from shops.

The mind is an interesting theatre. It induces fear-driven suspicions and irra­tional actions. So we panic regardless. We panic because we know the second case has come home, then the third, then we leave counting for government officials and the media. Meanwhile, our minds descend into multiple scenarios.

“The mind is its own place, and in it­self can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” John Milton observed in 1667.

People panic for many reasons; some serious while others just inconvenient. One of them is that there is no vaccine against the virus. To be ill and be unsure whether your doctor knows how to save you is a psychological mess.

Knowing you must avoid crowded spaces, but knowing you have no option but to use a bus, taxi, train or even Gau­train while going to other crowded spaces like work, hospitals, malls or a simple but crowded convenient store wreaks havoc in the mind. Could there be one person with the virus in this train, mall?

But it is perhaps the virus’ stealth na­ture and reports that, while it’s like flu, it has the distinct ability to wreck your lungs irreversibly – that also makes us panic. It is not an intellectual exercise. The fear of contracting the virus runs rings around your head while looking at a colleague – whether they were at the airport recently or not. The fear, the panic is visceral.

We panic in spite of our president and ministers telling us they’ve got this pan­demic under control. We panic also be­cause its comparison to flu means it’s air borne, it’s invisible to the eye, it lives on door handles, work stations, toilet knobs, kitchen utensils, clothes and, wait, this seems everywhere.

Many will go to church and shake hands, believing, as the words extols, that “greater is He that is in me, than he that is in the world”. Yet, the mind being the mind, will listen to the doctors and wreak havoc. After all, didn’t that Nige­rian pastor Elija Emeka Chibuke, who declared war on ending Coronavirus, end up hospitalised?

The fact that we could neither see nor feel when it enters the body, mesmer­ises the mind. Some of us may still be planning to get masks this weekend, or stocking up on more sanitisers unaware that the killer virus has already surrep­titiously entered our bodies. This too induces fear.

Many panic because they don’t have much confidence in the health system. And I am not talking about the jokes about our country struggling with “pol­ony [listeriosis] virus, foot and mouth and tin fish”. I am talking, at a general level, about our public health system’s ability to provide sustained good quality care. It’s the very reason why many pay for medical aids that reduce member ben­efits annually.

What also made people panic is the announcement by Health Minister Zweli Mkhize that the first carrier of the virus, who returned from a holiday in Ita­ly, was undetected on arrival at OR Tambo International Airport. The simple ques­tion is: how many others were let through like this at our airports? This person got in at OR Tambo Airport, our most trust­ed and busiest airport, but bright sparks operating the scanning machines didn’t see anything wrong.

He then got a connecting flight to King Shaka International Airport in KwaZu­lu-Natal. Still, no one saw it coming?

Could it be that the machines are defec­tive? Or the person arrived without the virus? If so, where then did they get it lo­cally? The official explanation is that the fever and other symptoms take a few days to manifest, making it possible to walk through the machines undetected. Then of what use are the airport scanning ma­chines if they can’t pick up freshly infect­ed carries of this virus?

I don’t like panicking because it doesn’t achieve anything. It doesn’t change any­thing. And the panic doesn’t disappear because the leader says so. It disappears when the populace can see their govern­ment is in control of the situation. Despite the havoc in my mind, I have faith, be­lieve it or not…

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