Sick with worry not just expression

WASHINGTON — Two threads of interest have emerged from the coronavirus “crisis:” One is an apparent generational divide related to relative worry; the other is the degree to which the media are contributing to the virus’ propagation.

I qualify “crisis” because, though we’ve had a steady rise in confirmed cases — and President Trump declared a national emergency Friday — a crisis seems yet to have occurred. This isn’t to say that a crisis isn’t in our future, but to suggest that the constant barrage of cataclysmic tidings, some of it false or misleading, could conceivably stress people’s immune systems to the detriment of their health.

Meanwhile, the crisis thus far is institutional and systemic. Our health care system is presently inadequate to the challenge of testing, which has helped reduce the virus’ spread in other countries, and treatment, should the numbers of infected people suddenly explode. And the Trump administration’s response, recently including the addition of at-large “fixer” and son-in-law Jared Kushner, has been inept to ludicrous. To wit: President Trump has said the media is creating hysteria in order to help defeat him in November. That would be a solid trick if most reporters weren’t actually competing against each other while editors struggle to agree on the proper use of the semi-colon.

But then, blaming the media has always been the president’s default mode when something careens out of his control. The difference this time is, literally, life and death. Trump supporters don’t need another excuse to distrust the media, but they do need the president to shoot straight about the physical health of the nation.

That said, one might not be wrong to disconnect from whatever medium delivers the latest information. Obviously, we need to keep up, but folks like me who are umbilically connected to news channels risk making ourselves sick. The connection between elevated stress levels and reduced immunity is well-documented. Thus, it seems entirely feasible that we increase our vulnerability to disease and infection by being over-exposed to a continuing cycle of drastic news.

There’s likely no great secret to be revealed by watching and listening endlessly to repeated messages of possible doom when the best advice thus far has been to wash your hands and keep them away from your face. To these caveats, I would add two words: leafy greens.

I’m not being cavalier, far from it. South Carolina, where I live, has at least 12 cases of the virus. Eight of them are in my small town of Camden (pop. 7,000). Four of those are close friends and neighbors over 80. So, no, I’m not making light of the virus. Nor, I hasten to add, am I in Camden right now.

But some people, specifically those over 60, apparently are taking the virus too-much-in-stride for their families’ comfort. Twitter discussions in recent days have revealed worry among younger people that their parents and grandparents aren’t sufficiently anxious. Anecdotally, they’re correct.

Al, a 77-year-old mover who works at a younger man’s pace, isn’t worrying, he told me. Instead, he’s focused on staying healthy rather than avoiding illness. Maria, 62, a Lowcountry interior designer, told me her adult son had called to check on her. Why, she asked? “Because you’re old!” he said. My own son issued a similar warning to me: “You cannot get this, Mom, or you’ll die.” Yikes.

What’s keeping seniors from taking the coronavirus seriously enough? In some cases, it may be a function of distrust in authority (think ’60s), especially when dueling narratives between the White House and the media create confusion. Disinformation is, of course, this White House’s specialty — and at least some on the Fox News Network regurgitate same. Even Fox medical expert described the World Health Organization as a “bunch of alarmists.”

Others in Trumpworld and its outer realms have done their part to misinform. Renowned epidemiologist Rush Limbaugh has said that the virus is no worse than a cold, though real experts say it’s 10 times more lethal than the regular flu. Shock-conspiracy theorist Alex Jones claims that people can cure themselves with his toothpaste. Those guys, always joking around.

On a positive note, the pace of testing and treatment does seem to have picked up, finally. It seems at least possible that Americans, through an abundance of individual caution, could possibly avoid the crisis we’ve been waiting for. In the meantime, I’ve made a conscious decision to minimize my exposure to the howls of the media’s dire wolves. Not only will my immune system be spared the added stress but I’ll have more time to power wash my house with Lysol.

Kidding, I think.

Editor’s note: Kathleen Parker’s email address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.


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