I once found myself in a situation in which I had made someone very, very mad, and it was all but guaranteed that he was going to cause me physical harm. I did not know when this was going to happen, how it was going to happen, or whether the angry person would do it himself or send someone to do it. It ended in me getting punched in the head from behind by a stranger while standing outside a bar at 2 a.m. That sucked, but it was also kind of a relief, because at least I could stop trying to game out the most likely scenarios for what was going to happen, and instead focus on what had happened, which ended up being nothing like what I’d projected.
I’ve been trying to keep that experience in mind while reading coverage of the coronavirus, which I must do religiously, because it has become my job to write about coronavirus. As a whole, discussion of the coronavirus in the public sphere has been, uhhhhh, terrifying. According to new projections that have been shared with both the American and British governments, 2.2 million Americans and 510,000 Brits will die from coronavirus if we do not take drastic action. The dismal performance of financial markets has everyone from the Wall Street Journal to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio projecting that things could get so bad they might lead to another Great Depression (currently, the market has ceded its recent gains, but it largely looks exactly how it did on the day President Donald Trump was inaugurated). Similarly, the degree to which the coronavirus has taken over our daily lives is reminiscent to the Spanish Flu outbreak of 1918, specifically in that that particular epidemic was very bad, and also happened kinda around the time of the Great Depression. Consider the following pair of New York Times articles, published on March 8 and 9, respectively:
Okay. So. Here is where I become a cranky old man yelling at my television — but I promise, my point here is salient and will ultimately make you feel better because reading about the worst-case scenarios at a time like this is about as helpful as licking the handle of a shopping cart. But I understand that these are the things our masochistic brains most want to click on so we can, in some twisted calculus, exist in a permanent state of doomsday anticipation so that when the actual doomsday comes it might not feel so bad, because we’ve been preparing by feeling fucking terrible.
But this Spanish Flu thing. The Spanish Flu cannot be both the antecedent of the coronavirus pandemic and also nothing like it, and yet, we are now stuck in our homes with little to do but click on every single Times or Journal or Post article about how the Spanish Flu predicts our downfall or doesn’t, without considering that it’s very lazy to use the Spanish Flu as a comparison point because there weren’t airplanes in 1918, and also that this is the kind of thing that is very easy for a journalist to write because they don’t even have to call anyone and can read the archives of their own newspaper for free.
It is true that we can learn lessons from the past, and it is true that if we study the long tail of history, we will find trends in human behavior that are present regardless of era, location, and technology, as well as precedents for literally whatever. But the point of looking into the past isn’t to say, “Oh, this thing happened one time, surely it will happen again.” If this were the case, then I would be writing this while jealously guarding a treasure chest of gold doubloons from pirates. But at some point, we realized that money works better when it’s not in doubloon form, and that pirates are less of a problem when much of the world economy isn’t based on colonial mercantilism. You look at history to see what the people did wrong the last time, and then you do your damnedest not to repeat their mistakes.
Along those same lines, the reason that a team of researchers informed Trump that 2.2 million Americans could die of coronavirus is not because they actually believe that this will actually happen, it’s because Trump is a selfish, stupid man who cannot be driven to take action unless you show him a big number and then say the word “bad” several times with the same forceful calm you would use if your dog had crapped on the rug in the bathroom. We create models such as these to help us figure out which real-life variables we can reasonably alter to avoid a bad (but ultimately unknown) outcome. But that same report (if you must, you can find it here), from Imperial College in London, quickly found its way into the hands of a bunch of people on Twitter, and suddenly they all became public health experts. And despite these people knowing about as much about coronavirus as they do carpentry or animal husbandry, they all started posting threads like this one, proclaiming we are all going to die:
I’m not saying that we should not be concerned about coronavirus. We most undoubtedly should be. But at a time like this, worst-case scenarios are not your friend, unless you like being friends with things that give you nightmares. It can be easy to catastrophize, to let your mind wander into doom and gloom, to feel like you have no control over events shaping your life, when you’re stuck inside seemingly watching the world crumble around you. It’s important to remember, though, that just as the coronavirus has enjoyed such a rapid spread because we live in such a physically connected world, our digitally connected world may just mitigate it. We’ve been able to impress the severity of this threat upon municipal, regional, and national governments throughout the world with heretofore unfathomable speed and efficiency, and have reached a point where enough people have gotten the memo — or, as is increasingly happening, the mandate — to STAY THE FUCK INSIDE that the variables informing our gravest coronavirus projections will hopefully be rendered moot. The simple truth of the matter is that through the act of “doing nothing,” you are playing a direct role in stemming the tide.
With a few notable  exceptions, the entire world is aware that we are in the middle of the pandemic, and just as you are, they are adjusting their lives accordingly, doing their best given the unique circumstances facing them. The positive power of inaction can be a hard concept to wrap one’s head around, so I called up Jessica Thompson, a partner at a psychotherapy practice called Centred in Kingston, Jamaica, for some advice. “We’re inclined to think that if we’re not doing something, we’re doing nothing,” she told me. “It gets tough to slow down and welcome that slowing-down.” Thompson added, “Structure and predictability are really important in making us feel safe, and in the absence of that, it can be a really hard time. There’s a lot that can come to the surface when it’s just you with your thoughts.”
Just before Thompson spoke with me, she’d been assembling a packet of information to send to her clients, many of whom are young adults attempting to navigate a world of freshly heightened anxiety. “When there’s panic in the air,” she told me, “‘cognitive distortions’ or ‘thought traps’ can feel like the truth. If you’re tuned in to the 24-hour news cycle and seeing minute-by-minute updates on the number of [coronavirus] cases, it feeds into that distorted thinking. The more ‘doomsday’ stories you consume, the worse it gets.” Breaking out of this pattern, she said, “Is not a matter of questioning a thought or interrogating it or getting to the bottom of it — you have to get away from it.”
In a non-social distancing world, she told me, “You have these mundane interactions that remind you there’s life outside what you’ve been thinking [about].” When you’re cooped up by yourself furiously checking the news to see how many people five states over over have gotten coronavirus, you’re not taking in data that can positively inform your behavior, you’re just feeding into anxiety. Instead of jacking your brain into Twitter or the New York Times homepage to see how bad things are looking, Thompson recommends picking one specific news source that both provides relevant information for your own life and that you trust, “and check it once per day.” The rest of the time, do whatever. Read books. Watch Law and Order. Do puzzles. Play video games. Play with your dog. Hang out with your roommates or your partner. Call people on the phone. Just stay inside, stay safe, and stay away from that really scary coronavirus story, and the next one, and the one after that.