Love in the time of fear: A traveler´s experience with coronavirus panic

Up until three weeks ago, my husband and I had been traveling through several countries in South America on our motorcycle. Lazy summer days comprised of beaches, hiking, good wine and endless stretches of road through Argentina and Uruguay were all that filled our horizon. Then in late January, a little known virus started blowing up news feeds and social media with round-the-clock coverage of some mysterious illness coming out of China. Internet hecklers were quick to hail it as the latest and greatest apocylapse fad to gain popularity in the global media.

And they weren´t wrong.

By the time my husband and I made it back to Boliva (where we live), it seemed the whole world was in a full blown panic over the spread of Covid-19; a flu like virus that appears to spread through the wire even faster than it does people.

Lazy summer days came to a brutal and sudden halt this year.

At the time, I´d developed a cold from riding on our motorcycle in the rain. So you can imagine the the looks I was getting in public as I coughed out green goo while hastily assuring concerned onlookers that I didn´t have “the virus”.

As a U.S. expat living in Bolivia, I´m no stranger to deadly disease. Last year, we had an incredibly dangerous outbreak of the Arenavirus (a.k.a. Arenaviridae).

You may know it as South American Ebola.

It´s literally in the same family of viruses and carries an equally high mortality rate. Civilians and health care workers were dropping dead like flies and the former presidential administration (under Evo Morales) did everything they could to down-play the crisis. This lead to a nationwide strike of doctors and medical personnel last July.  There were even travel warnings posted on the WHO and CDC websites. So why was no one panicking then? Why were people still coming to Bolivia for holidays during an outbreak of something that´s, quite literally, as deadly as Ebola?

Protesters in Sucre, Bolivia last year.

An even better question would be: Why have you never heard of the Arenavirus or the fight to contain a recent outbreak of it until just now?

The truth is, unfortunately, an ugly one: Where there´s profit, there´s more media coverage.

I´ve worked in journalism and reported for an outside, global media source both during the Arena Virus outbreak here in Bolivia and also during the civil revolution that followed later that same year. Sadly, I´ve seen firsthand how mainstream media distorts the truth to elicit a desired reaction from the public.

Or in some cases, ignore a breaking news story entirely.

Sadly, I´m seeing this same tried and true cycle repeat with the new and improved Corona Virus crisis. Because where there´s an insane amount of media coverage, someone stands to profit. It´s a lamentable fact and one of the oldest rules in journalism: Follow the money and you´ll find the truth.

And the subsequent panic created in the wake of Covid-19 is nothing short of staggering.

I´ve tried to calm family members over the phone as they´re faced with constant coverage of the death toll coming out of China and other countries; all amid mounting speculation that their own country may succumb to similar numbers. I discouraged neighbors in my small home town (Sucre, Bolivia) from closing their stores premptively and taking an unecessary financial loss. I´ve chastised friends for panic buying supplies they don´t actually need, or in some cases, simply make no sense (Um…400 rolls of toilet paper anyone?).

Or like buying surgical masks that don´t actually protect healthy people. (They keep respitory droplets in not out. That´s why they´re used in surgery.)

It takes a special kind of mask to stop a virus. Definitely not these!

My husband and I literally came home to a world set on fire by sensationalized media.

To clarify, I´m fully aware that the new Corona Virus is a legitimate problem which has been spreading and even killing a small percentage of its victims. That being said, there´s currently an outbreak of Dengue Fever happening in the Amazonian departments of Bolivia with over 40,000 reported cases.

Yes, you read that number right.

Dengue has a mortality rate of up to 20%. By comparison, Covid-19 is killing an estimated 3% of its victims, based on the data we currently have.

Yet, where is the media response here in Bolivia? It would seem my home is in the grip of a far more dangerous epidemic that has little to no media coverage, even locally.

Because at the end of the day, people tend to believe what they´re told.

If you read it, hear it, or see it in enough places, you´re likely to believe it. The disturbing lack of critical thinking and the over inflated response by the masses in the midst of the Corona Virus is yet another hallmark of our species naivete when it comes to handling a crisis logically.

What´s more interesting is the complete lack of coverage of the tens of thousands of people who´ve already recovered from Covid-19. Literally not one.single.word. has been mentioned by a major media outlet.

Another variable not being discussed are those who are asymptomatic, meaning people who are carriers but never got sick from the virus, and those who lack access to testing. It´s funny how those numbers have never been taken into account when calculating the mortality rate of this virus. It is likely the number of infected people is much higher than what´s actually being reported.

So with a higher infection rate and the amount of deaths staying roughly the same…that would mean the true mortality rate of Covid-19 is much less than is being blasted out across the media.

Panic literally helps no one.

Yet no ones makes the correlation or asks questions. People almost seem content to be scared.

It´s these same hyper anxious hordes who continue to troll the online newsfeeds by the hour looking for bigger,scarier numbers.  Drastic financial maneuvers on part of investors have put the world´s economies in a tailspin while the sensationalists continue to cling to their keyboards, adjusting their face masks and vomiting troll fodder at anyone who would ask logical questions about the enormous gaps in information we´re missing about a virus that has more speculation than facts being reported.

It´s a heartbreaking reality that many small businesses throughout the world will go bankrupt as a result, with places that rely on tourism being among the first. The tanking oil and gas industy giants struggle to keep their head above water as the enconomic platforms of entire nations start to crack. The DOW Jones continues to plunge like a high diver off a platform of misinformation, while people´s jobs, savings and retirement investments are disappearing amidst the tide of fear and self isolation.

So what can you do to help mitigate the damage being done by the media induced panic?

Listen to credible sources (in other words: Infectious disease specialists), and follow their recommended protocols. Most of them are actually pretty simple. (#1: Wash.Your.Hands.)

Stop panic buying things like we´re being invaded by space aliens.

Stop making drastic financial changes that fan the flames of an economic crisis.

Make smarter choices about where and how you travel.

Take precautions not to spread the virus like washing your hands. A LOT.

Limit interaction with large public venues or public transportation, if possible.

And most importantly: Stop. Spreading. Panic.

By doing these few things and taking the time to ask questions and educate ourselves, we not only face a brighter, healthier tomorrow; we take back our planet from media bullies who seek to spread fear for the sake of profit.

Until next time, stay healthy and keep wandering.

***Footnote: The banner photo is my husband and I at a protest during the Bolivian revolution last year. I thought it created an appropriate visual effect.***