Corona virus: Ignorance often leads to exaggerated fear and panic

Corona virus: Ignorance often leads to exaggerated fear and panic

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The fear of the unknown

Hamster purchases, huge media presence, fear and terror - the spread of the coronavirus Sars-CoV-2 keeps the world in suspense. Many people wonder if the whole response to the epidemic is justified or if it's just some kind of hype. A recent study examined why people are so sensitive to new viruses about which only limited information is available.

Ohio State University researchers investigated why new viral diseases such as Covid-19 can scare people, but can hide other risks, some of which are even higher. A central point seems to be the urge for information that is only available to a limited extent with new viruses. The results were recently presented in the "Risk Analysis" journal.

These infectious diseases are extremely dangerous

The World Health Organization WHO provides information on the worldwide spread of diseases. Some of the most common diseases are extremely dangerous. Here are a few examples:

  • tuberculosis: According to the WHO, tuberculosis is the most serious infectious disease of our time. In 2018, around 10 million people contracted it and 1.5 million died from a tuberculosis infection.
  • malaria: Malaria continues to spread across the globe. In 2018, around 228 million people contracted it. 405,000 victims fell victim to it.
  • measles: Around 10 million people affected by measles worldwide in 2018. Around 140,000 people, mostly children under the age of five, died from a measles infection.
  • Blood poisoning: Latest research shows that there were over 50 million cases of sepsis in 2017 and that eleven million deaths were associated with blood poisoning - this corresponds to every fifth death worldwide (see: Underestimated risk of blood poisoning).

Is the corona panic disproportionate?

According to the WHO, there are currently 113,672 Covid-19 infections and 4,012 deaths (as of March 10, 2020). If you compare this with the diseases mentioned above, the risk appears to be significantly lower. How does panic seem disproportionate? According to the current research work, ignorance coupled with the urge for new information could be the reason for a heightened sense of threat.

What Zika and Corona viruses have in common

In the study, the researchers examined the perceived threat posed by the Zika virus. However, the scientists assume that the results can also be applied to the outbreak of the Sars-CoV-2 coronavirus. "The Zika virus and the corona virus have important things in common," explains Shelly Hovick from the study team. Little is known about both viruses and both viruses have a lot of media attention.

More knowledge seems to worry more

The research team therefore examined how people search for and process information when there is a lot of uncertainty. The 494 participants found that more available information led to more alarm. "We found that the more people believed they knew something, the more they realized they didn't know enough," added Austin Hubner, the study's lead author.

Ignorance frightens

"Even the experts didn't know much about the Zika virus," the researchers emphasize. We are experiencing the same thing with the corona virus. "And that's scary for people who think they are in danger," emphasizes Hubner. Florida participants were recruited for the study because the number of locally transmitted Zika cases was highest in the United States.

New risks are more difficult to estimate

"New risks like Zika or the corona virus can cause some people to react differently to known risks like cancer or flu," continues Hovick. This also applies if the data indicate that someone is at low risk. The researchers attribute this to the lack of information, which creates the feeling of being at high risk.

More time spent due to missing information

In addition, the researchers found that worried people invest significantly more time in the information available, even if this does not result in them being better informed, since the information they are looking for simply does not yet exist.

Obtain information only from reliable sources

According to the research team, these results suggest that it is important for health authorities to keep the public informed. Those who are concerned or concerned about risks such as Zika or corona viruses should have access to reliable sources so that they do not have to spend more time dealing with the issue or become victims of misinformation that unnecessarily fuels fear. (vb)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the requirements of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Graduate editor (FH) Volker Blasek


  • Ohio State University: Knowing more about a virus threat may not satisfy you (published: March 10th, 2020),
  • Austin Y. Hubner, Shelly R. Hovick: Understanding Risk Information Seeking and Processing during an Infectious Disease Outbreak: The Case of Zika Virus; in: Risk Analysis, 2020,
  • WHO: Malaria (accessed: March 10, 2020),
  • WHO: Tuberculosis (accessed: March 10, 2020),
  • WHO: More than 140,000 die from measles as cases surge worldwide (access: 10.03.2020),
  • Kristina E Rudd, Sarah Charlotte Johnson, Kareha M Agesa, et al .: Global, regional, and national sepsis incidence and mortality, 1990-2017: analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study; in: The Lancet, 2020,

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