Flat White

Covidphobia: a fear for our age

7 July 2021

3:23 PM

7 July 2021

3:23 PM

If you were asked, “What is your phobia?”, how would you answer? Traditionally, people have spoken of a fear of spiders, or reptiles, or heights. If you are with someone who has one of these phobias, then you can see it pretty clearly – they will react physically, become emotionally a bit disoriented, and perhaps vocalise their fear (we all have our different styles of expression, of course). 

When I was training as a psychologist, we were introduced to more serious versions of phobia. We met those who were socially at risk because they were afraid to leave home. Others were so afraid of enemies the term ‘paranoid’ could be introduced. Some were sadly afraid of human touch because of past trauma. 

But what do we normally mean by ‘phobia’? Our English word comes from the Greek word ‘phobos’, which we translate as ‘fear’. The Greek philosophers drew the distinction between a reasonable fear, and a fear that is irrational. Some would call the latter kind ‘emotional fear’, while the reasonable fear tends to make sense given the circumstances. The reasonable kind of fear is based on what philosophers today call warranted beliefs (based in reason from a properly functioning mind).  

Clearly, we young psychologists were taught that any phobia that inhibited life beyond avoiding logical risk was something where we could (and should, if able) offer to help. However, today the term ‘phobia’ is increasingly difficult to discuss because it has become weaponised. For example, what do you think of when you hear the term “Islamophobia”? Does this apply to those who hate Muslims? Does it only apply to those who have acted verbally on their dislike of Muslims? Does it extend to those who believe the Islamic faith is wrong?  

Clearly, we would have to go through a process of discussing these contexts in a coherent, rational and reasonable manner if we wanted to use the term Islamophobia correctly. But that would require a mutually respectful approach so that we could listen, discuss, compare and contrast our ideas, beliefs and presuppositions. That is not what we tend to see in the media’s use of this term. 

Nor do we see such mutuality when another newer ‘phobia term’ is currently used – and that would be the term ‘homophobia’. Clearly, to say one disagrees, even philosophically or theologically or socially, with the concept of marriage being between two people of the same sex, is to attract the label. This is probably magnified even more so if the same opinion is expressed about those people born of one sex but wanting to live as the opposite sex – ‘transphobic’ would quickly be trotted out and thrown at the offender with the hopeful goal of making mud stick. 

Douglas Murray’s reflections on the irrationality of these so-called phobias, when contrasted to people acting rationally in the face of differences of opinion and belief, is indeed well titled as “the madness of the crowds”. Why should heterosexual people be shut down for asking questions about human ‘telos’, or purpose, within sexuality? Why should athletes born with biologically female capacities be forced to compete with those born with male genetic capacities? Where is the irrationality in at least exploring these questions? Why should the ‘phobia’ label be used against those who wish to explore these ideas? The great irony in labelling something which is rational as irrational, is that the mistake can be driven by an irrational fear. We thus find ourselves in a time where we use a term that is supposed to describe irrational fear – ‘phobia’ – irrationally.  

This brings us to another aspect of these newer public phobias. In the traditional sense, calling someone ‘a scaredy-cat of spiders’ might be hurtful in some contexts, but would most often be done in good humour and with an offer of practical help (“Yes, I will get rid of it for you”). Similarly, in our counselling work, describing a phobia was only ever to be an offer to help. But in these later iterations, the terms are clearly pejorative. 

If I may be permitted to introduce a new term that suggests a proper use of the term ‘phobia’, (I believe I have not seen it used anywhere else), it is “covidphobia”. What, you may ask, might be our irrational fears about this “beast”, as one Health Minister described it? Clinical trials have reported that Covid-19 is more infectious than previous ‘flus’, and that different variants of this virus can be increasingly infectious. Is it not therefore reasonable to fear it? However, I would suggest, as have others in this publication, that the irrationality has been in some responses that are, based on reasonable observation, disproportionate. 

But how can this be when the people advising the politicians are the most responsible scientists in the public health field in our land? The recent book by Stuart Ritchie can help us here. Part of his analysis of contemporary science reviews the difficulties of lack of replication of experiments, bias in procedures, and hype in reporting.  Let’s take replication and Covid-19. Without replication of results, then any new scientific observation is at best ‘an initial finding’, or a ‘indicator within this context’ – it is not certain (science rarely is). With Covid, the clinicians are relying on little replicated controlled data, other than what they see in a highly controlled laboratory. The possibility of this pandemic starting from a laboratory is a salient reminder that even in those contexts, control can be difficult.  

Yet how does this translate when outside the lab? For example, how would it even be possible to replicate something like the spread of viruses in-situ under laboratory conditions? ‘In-situ’ and ‘controlled laboratory conditions’ are not compatible with a virus. Epidemiologists may map general in-situ geographic patterns, but these are correlations. Correlations, while interesting and sometimes worthwhile, are not causation. As Adam Creighton has demonstrated in his reports of economic analysis, lack of correlations can be even more interesting. Where there is no observable correlation, how can causation be inferred? 

Ritchie also reminds us that no science is neutral because scientists work within their general social setting, plus their professional culture. Currently, science can be seen to reward “attention-grabbing, unequivocal, statistically significant results” according to Ritchie.  It is why he documents that there can be ‘hype’ when reporting scientific results to the public, and why, in some instances, the impact of the scientific results become exaggerated by leaders beyond what the initial science indicates. 

To avoid these scientific difficulties, what might we expect of our scientists at a time like Covid-19, instead of hearing about the ‘beastly’ variants whose exponential growth is not evident in many of our contexts? What level of scientific confidence should we expect before liberties are taken from us without any transparency of cost-benefit analyses of the kind Adam Creighton has been suggesting? Why, when science has been so helpful for us across the centuries, is it being so used against many of our basic liberties within our democracy?  

What we could hope for, and should hope for, is transparency of data, transparency of analytical processes, openness to scientific engagement from peers, and humility of presentation when steering us through a rational (rather than irrational) response to this virus. Ritchie calls this ‘open science’, and his calls for it are most apt for this context.  

This lack of openness is why we cannot make sense of ‘super-spreader events’ that don’t eventuate; or of expected exponential growth that does not become exponential; nor of the daily reports of meaningless (de-contextualised) case numbers. For example, how sick are people each day? What ages are they? What co-morbidities are involved? The last one may be very significant, given some reports about obesity and severity of ill-health with this virus, and the Australian rates of obesity.  

This is why I cringed when I heard our Prime Minister, for whom I do have respect, say that the vaccine level that is needed to bring us back to ‘normalcy’ “will be a scientific number, not a political one.” That, Mr Prime Minister, is impossible. Science cannot describe life outside the lab.  It is too complex, given that humanity involves differences in time, place, space and beliefs. Perhaps you could take a leaf from Jordan Peterson, who is a social scientist who has realised that wisdom comes from more than the end of a microscope. Sometimes, wisdom comes from looking at the practical learnings of those who have gone before us, even to what Peterson (and Jonathan Haidt) calls the ancients. To pretend a lab induced scientific number will give us back our freedoms is scientism, not science.  

The articulate Mr Murray, in his book, calls for tolerance and a listening ear. When might that start to apply with our leaders in this COVID situation? Isn’t that what the Westminster system was designed to do? That honoured tradition was not designed for bureaucrats to simply distribute information, as recently claimed by a couple of our State Chief Medical Officers, put up for media consumption by their respective Health Ministers and Premiers. No, we are supposed to be engaged in a rational dialogue around reasonable exchange of data, processes and ideas, within respectful relationships. Then perhaps we can avoid another irrational fears for our times. 

The struggle is not new. One of the more recent ancients – G.K. Chesterton – warned us of it a century ago: 

If it means the imposition by the police of a widely disputed theory, incapable of final proof – then our priests are not now persecuting, but our doctors are.  … Government has become ungovernable; that is, it cannot leave off governing. Law has become lawless; that is, it cannot see where laws should stop. The chief feature of our time is the meekness of the mob and the madness of the government.

Eugenics and Other Evils, 1920 

Stephen J Fyson has a PhD in community psychology. 


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