Can Americans Kick Their Pandemic Fear Addiction?

We must actively confront our fears to regain the freedoms we have lost this past year.

President Joe Biden wore a mask outdoors to tell us that the CDC has dropped its recommendation on wearing masks outdoors. He’s been fully vaccinated for months, but goes around masked everywhere, sometimes even double masked. I’m not sure what message the president intends to send, but by his actions he is playing the role of Fear-Monger-in-Chief, and millions of Americans are receiving the message that COVID is scary and they must live every day in fear.

Biden’s use of fear to govern the country stands in sharp contrast to the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt, who inspired Americans in his first inaugural address in 1932 with the admonition, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Based on the number of people I see driving alone and masked up in their cars, I think many Americans now live by the motto, “The only thing we have to fear is normalcy.”

My husband and I were out walking in our northern Virginia suburban neighborhood when we saw two people across the street masked up. They appeared to be husband and wife. I couldn’t help myself. As we walked past them, I said to my husband in an intentionally loud voice, “Isn’t it great the CDC now says we don’t need to wear masks outside?” I’m not sure they heard me, but it made me feel better to call out the ridiculous behavior of some of these people who appear to be addicted to fear.

We see them everywhere we go. I recently rode my bike past a masked-up couple walking on a wide trail in central Virginia. I was not wearing a mask. As I approached them, both turned their backs to me and pretended to be staring into the bushes that lined the trail. It was just so weird and dehumanizing.

Perhaps their strange addiction can be explained by the skewed perspective they have on the dangers of COVID. A recent poll by Franklin Templeton and Gallup using monthly data from 35,000 U.S. adults found young people overstated their risk of dying from COVID by as much as tenfold. Those 24 and under believed they had a 7.7% to 8.7% chance of dying from COVID-19 while the actual risk is 0.1%. Those between the ages of 25 and 34 believed they had a risk of death between 9.4% and 10.8% while the real risk is 0.7%. The poll showed Democrats to be more fearful than were Republicans about death from the virus.

Democrats are likely to exaggerate the severity of COVID. When asked how often COVID patients had to be hospitalized, a very large share of Democrat voters said that at least 20% did. The actual hospitalization rate is between 1% and 5%.

Democrats are also more likely to exaggerate COVID’s toll on young people and to believe that children account for a meaningful share of deaths. In reality, Americans under 18 account for only 0.04% of COVID deaths.

What is the best way to escape the grip of pandemic fear? As with many anxiety disorders, a good dose of reality often helps. Some call it exposure therapy. It simply means confronting one’s fears. Anyone who is afraid to leave their home without a mask on, even if they are fully vaccinated, ought to take baby steps. Perhaps try taking the mask off in the car. Then take it off while gardening or exercising outdoors. Then venture outside your neighborhood without a mask. Shake someone’s hand. Give someone outside of your family a hug. Go visit your grandchildren. Go back to church. Start doing normal things. This is the only way we are going to get back to normal.

I reject the idea that we are going to have to accept a “new normal.” To say there are certain behaviors we cannot return to is to normalize fear and make it permanent. Just because the old man in the White House is addicted to fear doesn’t mean we have to be. We must actively confront our fears to regain the freedoms we have lost this past year.

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