BMJ Opinion, February 2020
The ongoing covid-19 outbreak has underlined the need for more research on the nature of panic and its drivers. The strategies we have for communicating about risk and engaging with communities are insufficient. We need to better understand the links between panic, rumour, fear, and anxiety. To what extent is panic universal or are panics in fact culturally specific? How precisely is panic linked to issues of trust—whether that is trust in the government, media, or experts?
Panic is still too little studied and far too little understood. It is easily dismissed as a distraction to the main task at hand of containing an epidemic. And yet the management of panic is likely to be key to managing infectious diseases in an ever more connected world.
Robert Peckham is MB Lee professor in the humanities and medicine, chair of the Department of History, and founding director of the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong. He is the author of Epidemics in Modern Asia (2016) and editor of Empires of Panic: Epidemics and Colonial Anxieties (2015).