Mass Quarantine May Spark Irrational Fear, Anxiety

With a new virus, “there is uncertainty, and that’s what drives anxiety,” she added.

Lessons From SARS

“All anxiety is certainly not bad,” Neda Gould, PhD, clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, told Medscape Medical News.

“Some anxiety or fear can be a good motivator for people to become aware and make necessary changes, but it shouldn’t interfere with our lives,” she said.

David McKeown, MD, who authored an opinion piece in the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail last week, noted that it’s important to recognize that a communicable disease epidemic can be both a biological and sociologic event.

McKeown, who served as Toronto’s medical officer of health from 2004 to 2016, during the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in Toronto, knows firsthand how people may develop an irrational fear of persons from the part of the world where the virus originated.

When SARS hit Toronto, people who appeared to be Asian reported being shunned on public transportation and having trouble hailing cabs, McKeown noted. At the height of the SARS epidemic, he held a news conference at a once-bustling Chinese restaurant in the neighboring city of Mississauga in an effort to reassure anxious people that it was entirely safe to eat at such businesses.

“In a time of panic, sober reality can become a rare resource,” he said. Yet, communicable-disease epidemics have power to spark levels of fear and anxiety that are “wildly out of proportion” to actual risk, McKeown noted.

Stigma the “Most Pernicious Effect”

The first step in combatting the “other” epidemic is to anticipate and address it directly, McKeown added. “The best prescription is frank and accurate information from credible sources ― and lots of it,” he writes.

Similarly, Wessely and Rubin suggest that the stigma that accompanies mass quarantine is the “most pernicious effect.”

“Previous incidents have seen residents of the affected areas socially shunned, discriminated against in the workplace and their property attacked. Unless active steps are taken to prevent this, the official imposition of a cordon may aggravate such effects. Vigilante-imposed isolation can follow or even run ahead of official quarantine,” they warn.

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