[Viewpoint] Fear fear, not the flu

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[Viewpoint] Fear fear, not the flu

‘We interrupt this program .?.?.” These were the words listeners heard on a news bulletin 71 years go. The announcer said a meteorite had landed at Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, and a reporter on the scene said Martians had walked out of a spaceship and started shooting heat rays, killing thousands.

The invasion of the Martians was a Halloween hoax broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938. The man behind the program was Orson Welles, the director of the legendary movie “Citizen Kane.”

The listeners who heard the opening of “The War of the Worlds” series aired on CBS radio shot out of their homes in panic, believing that the news flash was authentic. So great was the fear that some of those fleeing later said they were convinced they saw heat rays.

Mass hysteria ensued from what was meant as a dramatic radio stunt. No one involved in the broadcast had foreseen the intensity of the listeners’ reactions.

In the old days, panic found work mostly during times of war and epidemics. Its role was expanded in the modern world via the financial markets. Panic was common, inviting an array of studies and analyses, as well as prescriptions and remedies.

During mass panic, the level-headed people caution others to ride out the storm. In fact, CNBC financial pundit Jim Cramer says money can be made during a panic, especially on the heels of a sell-off. He says investors should buy when the fear index on the market is at its peak.

Many have capitalized on this simple logic, including Wall Street billionaire Warren Buffett.

But staying put isn’t always wise during a financial dilemma. A panic can be catastrophic for a bank during an economic crisis.

If people start to get jittery about their deposits and begin to pull money, the bank has to sell its assets, even at discounted prices, to provide money. The worst-case scenario sees the bank going under.

Then the depositors who refrained from joining the run may lose their money while those who acted on their panicky impulse are proven right, according to the economist Paul Krugman.

The effect of panic on sickness and epidemics can be more sporadic than on the economy. Once panic steps in, people’s reaction toward illness becomes more irrational.

Such is the case with the panic over the A(H1N1) influenza. The health authorities are bombarded with phone calls pleading for vaccinations. Some need a jab before going on important business trips and some complain they might get sick ahead of the national college entrance exam. Some use their influence to get ahead in the line.

The country’s president pronounced he will wait his turn, but others aren’t as level-headed. Once you fall prey to the forces of panic, reason skips out the window.

Skeptics are no less reasonable. Many young mothers refuse to get their kids vaccinated against the new flu because they question the safety and efficacy of the shots. One mother says she heard China-made vaccines have possible side effects. “I don’t want my child getting something worse than H1N1, which is no more dangerous than a seasonal cold,” she said.

Panic has also thrown the education field into disarray. One primary school is closed while across the street, a middle school is open. In a single school, one grade level is shut down while the other years soldier on.

Different perspectives have led to different approaches to the virus outbreak. One side claims the flu is no more harmful than the seasonal flu while the other side underscores the dangers. The government is split, its actions disorientated.

The economist Alfred Marshall warned that nothing can withstand panic. If a lit match falls in a crowded theater, it’s not the fire but panic that causes deaths.

We can only hope that the government has learned a lesson from the mad cow disease fiasco last year.

*The writer is the business news editor of the JoongAng Sunday.

by Lee Jung-jae
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