This week, panic, pandemonium and a pandemic all hit India at the same time. And yet, the words ‘don’t panic’ had the exact opposite reaction on Indians dealing with coronavirus or COVID-19, Yes Bank moratorium, and the rumours in the aftermath of the Delhi riots.
Don’t panic, said Prime Minister Narendra Modi as more Indians started testing positive for the novel coronavirus, even as he cancelled his Holi plans. Don’t panic, said RBI chief Shaktikanta Das even as Yes Bank customers lined up outside ATMs to withdraw whatever they could. Don’t panic, said the Delhi Police as rumours of riots sent the national capital into a tizzy again.
And that’s why ThePrint’s newsmaker (and news-manufacturer) of the week is — panic.
How moral panic works
The word ‘panic’ comes from, as many things do, a mischievous and fearful Greek god — Pan. Although otherwise bacchanalian in his pursuits, Pan often caused humans to flee in unreasonable fear, according to mythology.
But what is happening now in India is nothing short of ‘moral panic’ — “a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group”. Moral panic is created to maintain status quo, in most cases.
And when panic hits, human beings go into overdrive. Social media only amplifies this fear. “Even as behavioural researchers we couldn’t resist the urge to buy toilet paper,” wrote two Australian scholars in an article in The Guardian this week, amid coronavirus scare. They point to three factors that guide human behaviour when the panic button is hit — “scarcity, social proof, and regaining a sense of control.”
All three were applicable to Indians this week when hand sanitisers went off the shelves thanks to a virus, 3,000 distress calls were made to the Delhi Police, and Yes Bank ATMs had to down their shutters. Then, all these issues combined to make the stock market crash 894 points Friday.
A birthday party and a cow dung party
Let’s look at the biggest source of public panic right now.
Although the novel coronavirus has been spreading from China’s Wuhan since December and has already claimed over 3,000 lives and reached every continent except Antarctica, India woke up to the crisis only this week.
It only took a birthday party to shut down two schools in Noida (although now, all primary classes in Delhi government schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas have been closed). Then, the Italians showed up in Jaipur with the coronavirus symptom. They have since been tested positive and shifted to Delhi to be kept in preventive isolation. The PayTM office also shut down in Gurugram, after an employee tested positive. In Hyderabad, a techie added to the total count.
India Inc — from Wipro to Intel to Flipkart — has imposed travel restrictions on employees or completely banned it.
Almost everyone has memorised the symptoms — cough, fever, fatigue — and preventive measures — hand washing, masks, and tissues. But the bigger problem in north India has been the coronavirus scare overlapping with the flu season. As winter wears off and summer approaches, the flu is catching up with many and leading to even more panic.
“With a tornado you can see it and its damage is quite immediate. When it’s an invisible pathogen, whose detection and understanding resides among professionally trained specialists, average people get a little bit more agitated,” said Monica Schoch-Spana, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Prices of hand sanitisers and masks have shot up in India, and many pharmacies and online retailers have run out of stocks. So, Indians did what Indians do best — peddle pseudoscience. The Hindu Mahasabha planned a gaumutra (cow urine) party with cow dung cakes to fight the coronavirus. The AYUSH ministry advocated Unani and homeopathic medicine to prevent coronavirus. And most Indians forwarded each other ‘home remedies’ and warnings on WhatsApp.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee called the sudden coronavirus scare Modi government’s diversion tactic from the Delhi riots.
Fighting panic, logically
If there is a country that showed the world the way to handle COVID-19 and public panic, in general, it is Singapore. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reached out to the citizens in a nine-minute video to inform them of the steps being taken, what citizens can do and assured them that it wasn’t as deadly as SARS. “Fear can do more harm than the virus itself,” he said.
Back home, India too had a success story.
Most (north) Indians have forgotten that Kerala had the first three confirmed cases of coronavirus in the country and took care of it in record time. It put out a ‘state calamity’ warning, published data daily on the number of cases and put many residents under ‘community surveillance’. The timely dissemination of public data, the 28-day quarantine and travel monitoring helped Kerala bring the situation under control and tackle panic. And this isn’t the first time Kerala faced a public health emergency; it had successfully tackled the spread of Nipah virus in 2018.
Similar steps — information, reaching out and being on the ground — were taken by the Delhi Police when rumours started circulating in Delhi again last week about another round of rioting. The Delhi Police, this time, quickly moved into action — dispelled rumours, patrolled the streets at night, and put out correct information. It showed that the Delhi Police can clearly act – when it wants to.
Now the ball is in the Finance Ministry and the RBI’s court to assure depositors that Yes Bank won’t become a big NO and further destabilise the banking sector.
As Douglas Adams wrote in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, don’t panic.