May 12, 2021

GUEST ROOM | Unmask Your Anxiety

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I am not afraid of dying, I dread living forlorn. Which is why masked people and “social distancing” trouble me so, and why the recent CDC recommendation cheers me up. French philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas thought that face-to-face encounters initiate our humanity: By revealing our fragile faces to one another, we expose our mutual vulnerabilities so we may truly connect. Has COVID  flipped the coin —  do we now signal vulnerability by masking our faces so we may justify why we should disconnect? 

If we do, it is fear, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” that may tear us apart. I hope that “forever maskers” will change their mind, but their anxiety is just another early sign of the Post-COVID Stress Disorder (PCSD) that is upon us — as are the recent deliberations about wearing masks outdoors. After all, the CDC mask advice is long overdue; the scientific verdict has been clear for many months now: Outdoor transmission is rare, and the risk of infection from an occasional encounter is negligible.

Masked hiking is not a precautionary health measure. But it has become a political statement. Where I live in Ithaca, a walk in the park is all I need to spot fellow liberals; they are the ones wearing masks when they are walking, jogging, cycling or fishing, alone. It started last spring, and grew over summer. The pro-choice and pro-life camps have traded places, with liberals championing the sanctity of life, turning masks into an article of faith, a liberal veil. Why? 

My colleagues and I sought to unveil these COVID conundrums in our recently published study on the pandemic politics of existential anxiety. The findings surprised us. We presumed harsher measures are far more effective in containing the disease. Our analysis, however, shows that on a global average, opting for more or less stringent measures hardly mattered. We did, however, manage a fearful feat: scaring ourselves to death, damaging our mental health. 

The evidence is striking. We traced “mortality salience,” or thinking about death, in the largest discourse databases to reveal that over the past year, people worldwide have been thinking about ‘death’ and ‘mortality’ twice as often as before.

Certainly, the rapid spread of COVID-19 offers good reasons to dread death. Over three million died worldwide and over half a million in the US alone. From grieving nursing homes to swamped hospitals to overwhelmed morgues — whether in Italy, US, Brazil or India — there should be no denying of the pandemic’s grave severity. Still, other pandemics — from the seasonal flu to malaria to AIDS — have spread more widely or have been more lethal, or both. And other health crises, like unhealthy diets or tobacco use, have taken an even greater toll, yet never approached COVID-like media coverage or public scare. 

Something else has been going on in the making of this “year of fear.” One culprit is the pre-pandemic climate of anxiety, especially in the US where stress, depression and anxiety have been mounting for a generation, particularly among youth. Enter the viral fear, and between fight or flight we opted for the former, often among ourselves: Masking our anxiety with polarizing politics, spending much of the past year quarreling over counter-COVID measures.

Our study shows this commotion has been much ado about nothing. On a global average, we found, there is no clear correlation between variation in stringency and COVID-related cases/deaths. To state the obvious, this is not to suggest that we should have ignored the pandemic. Still, COVID policies warrant a careful cost-benefit assessment. Some steps, like workplace safety measures and travel warnings, are effective with little cost. Other measures, like travel restrictions and school closures, are sharply double-edged: effective but incurring high economic and psychological costs. Still other steps, like mandatory masks outdoors, seem more about assuaging our anxiety while effectively amplifying it. 

Granted, fear is a useful evolutionary mechanism, and the pandemic panic has its upsides; it likely facilitated the development of vaccines. But pandemic panic has a darker side, too: a grim material, emotional, mental and moral toll. Economic hardship, depression, anxiety, stress, suicide and substance abuse grew exponentially since the start of the pandemic; in the US, rates of anxiety and depression quadrupled. The ill-effects may haunt us for years to come.

The coronavirus pandemic is a lesson in humility, and a greater lesson still for our humanity. For over a year, we have been thinking more about the dangers of dying than about how we ought to live. Given limited public resources — should we favor physiological or psychological health, old or young age, the number of lives or years of life? How should we reform healthcare systems overwhelmed by a relatively moderate pandemic? Should we worry only about pandemics that hit the West, or also, truly, care about the rest? Should we aim for a zero-risk society or tolerate certain risks in pursuing greater goals? COVID-19 invites us to make difficult public choices and take responsibility for them, but we often decline that invitation. It is not too late to accept, preferably face-to-face.

Uriel Abulof is a visiting professor of government at Cornell University. This summer, he will be teaching his award winning online course, HOPE [What Makes Us Human?] Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.