Italy has Europe’s highest cases of Coronavirus, with 888 confirmed cases and 21 deaths. The country also has the third highest case of the COVID-19 virus in the world. An Italian virologist, however, has argued that the Coronavirus is not a pandemic to be feared, since the seasonal flu in Italy has killed more people in 2020 than the virus.

Leading Medical Researcher: Coronavirus Panic is Overblown

For Maria Rita Gismondo, Director of Clinical Macrobiology, Virology and Bio-emergency Diagnostics at the laboratory of the Sacco Hospital in Milan, where samples of possible contagions are analyzed, the panic of the coronavirus is not proportional to its numbers.

According to Italy’s Higher Institute of Health, in the sixth week of 2020, the seasonal flu caused, on average, 217 deaths per day, some due to pulmonary and cardiovascular complications related to the flu. Figures from the WHO (World Health Organisation) show that more than 700 people in Italy die in one year from HIV / AIDS out of a total population of 770,000 people. In the United States, there were 280,000 Americans hospitalized over the flu this winter, and 16,000 people killed.

‘It’s Madness’

“It’s madness,” Gismondo said. “We’ve turned an infection that is little more serious than influenza into a lethal pandemic. Look at the numbers. It’s not a pandemic”.

As of February 29, official figures from the WHO reveal that COVID-19 has sickened more than 85,000 people in 54 countries worldwide, and killed almost 3,000 people.

Despite these figures, there is a “psychology of fear” surrounding the virus. Global stock of face masks are running out, as people make panic purchases, despite experts warning that people who aren’t sick do not need to wear them. Rumors in South Korea that napkins and toilet paper can be used as masks have left stores emptied of these products over the past few weeks.

“Humans often can develop a robust and pathological fear of things that might not happen, to create realities that don’t exist,” said Elizabeth Phelps, Harvard University’s Pershing Square Professor of Human Neuroscience. “So yes, of course you can overdo it.”

“In the old days, the virus update would be a mention on the 6 o’clock news, but today, it’s tweets and Facebook posts 24/7,” Phelps says. “Fears can be learned. If you’re communicating with people online who are afraid or are seeing people online who are afraid, that exposure is more likely to invoke fear in you.”

This spiraling of a benign situation into a fear-based overreaction is called “dread risk”, according to Phelps. Giving the example of cars, she explains that residents in the US city of San Francisco are more likely to be killed by a car than COVID-19, “but cars are something we know, we’re comfortable with them, so they’re not scary even though they’re far more deadly.”

‘Panic is the Biggest Enemy You Face’

As scientists work on a cure, psychologists and sociologists must work with the government and the scientific community to create responses that would teach the general public not to give in to dread risk. This is especially important, because, with the rise of globalization, the jet age, and urbanization, humans are in increased contact with one another and with wild animals.

Viruses now have a greater chance to jump between species and between human bodies. Global citizens must learn to deal with cases of newly-discovered diseases and viruses without giving in to fearful overreactions, such as scapegoating, racism or ostracization. News outlets have reported, for example, that anti-Chinese sentiments continue to spread globally alongside the coronavirus.

“This is all linked to a situation we have created,” said Ilaria Capua, director of the One Health Center of Excellence at the University of Florida-Gainesville, a center which works to advance a healthy co-existence between humans, plants and animals. “We are in the field of the unknown. But you can only find things out by experiencing them,” she continued.

“What is exceptional about this outbreak is the Chinese shared the sequencing of the virus, for the first time, and this is wonderful. We now have the collective intelligence to get ahead of a problem like a new virus, which is no longer as we’re seeing just a problem of one country anymore,” Capua added.

Capau, who sequenced the 2006 avian flu virus, leading to the creation of a vaccine, argues that the Coronavirus will not lead to an “apocalyptic scenario”, because its fatality rate is too low. Like other experts, she advises national populations not to panic.

“Panic is the biggest enemy you face in any emergency,” she said. “Panic can do much more damage than the virus.”