Unnecessary COVID-19 hysteria art

It seems like every day since March, there has been another new, dire headline about the coronavirus. The unknowns in late March were truly scary, but although the number of American deaths from COVID-19 has dropped significantly since their peak in April, the coronavirus hysteria has continued. 

In the middle of March, we were told of an “apocalyptic” surge of 13 deaths at an NYC hospital. In early April, there was an unemployment apocalypse. In late April, Georgia’s reopening was leading the race to become America’s number one death destination

Spoiler alert: Georgia did not become America’s number one death destination for COVID-19. That title belongs instead to New Jersey, as of July 1.

Each of these articles did have some truth to them, and reopening likely led to more cases than a complete shutdown. However, the word choice in these articles is too extreme. 

I’m not sure you can find a more dire word to describe an event than “apocalyptic,” which means “resembling the end of the world.” Asteroids that are projected to hit earth, the eventual heat death of the sun and The Book of Revelation could be described as apocalyptic. A dramatic increase in cases of a disease with a fatality rate of most likely less than one percent? Tragic and frightening, sure, but apocalyptic? I don’t think so.

I understand that the journalism world of today revolves around getting clicks, and headlines with “apocalyptic” predictions will probably receive more of them, but the problem with overuse of these terms is that when things get real bad again, the warnings will be largely ignored. It’s a classic case of the boy who cried wolf. 

There has been a lot of good news about the course of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States since its height in April, and these are just as important as legitimate warnings. 

In early March, the World Health Organization estimated that the death rate of COVID-19 was 3.4%, which is frighteningly high. 

Scientists still aren’t entirely sure of the exact rate, but most agree that it is lower than 1%, at least three times lower than initially estimated. 

1.1 million American deaths were predicted in a “medium-case” scenario in the middle of March, with a need for an eightfold increase in hospital beds to cover the surge. And that was with mitigation efforts.

So far, we have not needed to increase hospital capacity eightfold to care for everyone, and have yet to approach one million dead. This is a low bar for a country’s handling of the coronavirus, but it is the bar that has been set by dire warnings.

Deaths are also currently way down from their mid-April peak in the United States. It is true that COVID-19 death counts lag behind case counts, by one to two weeks, according to Benjamin Neuman, chair of the biological sciences department at Texas A&M University-Texarkana. However, it is clear that the coronavirus situation in the United States improved at some point, despite the nonstop dire headlines. 

The problem is that a second wave may be on the horizon, shown by a recent increase in cases, but the warnings of health experts and media outlets may have lost their power. 

When the word apocalyptic has already been used and people have not seen a direct impact, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe the headlines.

So it’s no wonder that people continue to return to a pre-COVID lifestyle despite headlines warning of an apocalyptic surge in some cities, or a humanitarian catastrophe in Texas.

By the way, if you want to see what a real humanitarian catastrophe looks like, check out Yemen, a country with a smaller population than Texas, where a famine that has been ongoing since 2016 killed 50,000 children in 2017 alone.

In comparison, Texas has reported around 2,500 deaths from COVID-19 among their entire population as of July 1.

The problem is that in many places across the southern and western United States, cases are rising rapidly, and the death toll will almost certainly increase.

I also recognize that a lot of these headlines are meant to increase mask-wearing and social distancing compliance, but they may have the opposite effect, since the headlines have always been bad even when the death toll has decreased.

Part of the reason COVID-19 was so bad in the early stages is that many politicians and citizens did not take the virus seriously enough, partly because many had lived through outbreaks of SARS, MERS, Zika, Ebola and H1N1, along with plenty of media panic. 

I even hopped on the bandwagon of writing about how Nebraskans should not panic about the coronavirus back in February. Though, to be fair, none of the quarantined US citizens from Wuhan at Camp Ashland ever had COVID-19, so we really did not need to panic about them.

While the United States needs to learn from their mistakes in handling the first wave of the coronavirus, journalists and health experts need to learn from their mistakes in hysterical coverage of the virus as well, by saving their hysterical word choice for when things truly get bad.

Oh, and since this is yet another coronavirus opinion article, I must end with what remains perhaps the last piece of non-politicized advice left. Wash your hands!

Brian Beach is a sophomore journalism major. Reach him at brianbeach@dailynebraskan.com.