Human nature in times of stress

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 62, No. 2, March 2020, Page 45 Editorials COVID-19

A few months ago, I read something about the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003 and I remember thinking, it’s only a matter of time until something else strikes. In case you think I have some prophetic power, I should state that I have never won a lottery prize.

As I write this editorial in early February, the novel Wuhan coronavirus has been declared a world health emergency by the World Health Organization. At this point, there have been about 14 000 documented cases in 23 countries with over 300 deaths, all but one in China. It remains unclear if this virus is destined to become a global pandemic or fizzle out in the months to come.

Fortunately, this virus appears to be less virulent then SARS, which had a death rate of roughly 10%. However, it is much more contagious and is already close to doubling the number of SARS cases. Also troubling, and making screening more difficult, is the virus’s apparent ability to transmit prior to an individual being symptomatic. I am reminded of the Spanish flu outbreak in 1918 (no, I’m not that old), which had a lower mortality rate than SARS but by the sheer number of people infected was responsible for millions of deaths.

By the time this editorial makes it to print, the trajectory of the Wuhan coronavirus will likely have been decided. The purpose of my editorial is to reflect on human nature and the hope I have for compassion and grace. It is easy to be a positive influence in the world when everything is going well. Sadly, I have found that true human nature is often demonstrated during times of stress and difficulty. Sporadic reports of racism directed toward the Asian community have already begun to surface. Viruses don’t care about human skin pigment or geographic origin. This virus could have just as easily originated in a town or city on any other continent.

I have fielded a few questions about this novel virus in my office, and I can feel the fear building among my patients. I remain hopeful that despite the challenges this virus might bring that the world will react with decency toward those less fortunate. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t want my family or friends to be infected, and I’m not immune to the anxiety this potential pandemic might bring, but I will strive to focus on the caring our profession is known for. Increasingly, we live in a closely connected global society, so this situation affects all of us. I will strive to do my part with empathy and respect when faced with any threats this virus might bring. May the world do the same.
—David Richardson, MD

David R. Richardson, MD. Human nature in times of stress. BCMJ, Vol. 62, No. 2, March, 2020, Page(s) 45 - Editorials, COVID-19.

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