The COVID-19 outbreak has brought much of the world to a standstill and hammered the world economy. But it strikes me that most people’s emotional reactions to the virus have been remarkably muted. While panic buying has certainly been a problem, popular panic over the disease itself seems rare.
So why isn’t COVID-19 scarier? I’d like to propose that the reason lies in the symptoms – or rather, the symptoms COVID-19 lacks.
There has been quite a bit of research on the psychology of disease avoidance. The theory is that humans evolved a ‘behavioural immune system’ to help us avoid being infected by pathogens, by making us want to avoid signs of infection.
A consistent finding is that we are primed to be disgusted both by skin abnormalities (spots and rashes especially), and by bodily fluids – both of which can spread contagion.
Facial expression of disgust. From Ekman (1976)
COVID-19, however, lacks visible symptoms. The coronavirus doesn’t cause spots, a rash, buboes, yellow skin, bloodshot eyes, or any of the stigmata of other infections. There are striking (and disturbing) images of victims of smallpox, measles, or leprosy, but you can’t take a picture of COVID-19 symptoms.
In terms of body fluids, while vomiting and diarrhoea can be symptoms of COVID-19, they’re uncommon. Even the cough of COVID-19 is mostly a dry cough, meaning that phlegm is usually not a big issue.
So I believe that COVID-19’s lack of visible or fluidic symptoms makes it an easy disease to ignore, because it doesn’t disgust us in the way many other diseases do.
To be sure, it’s also true that COVID-19 is just less deadly than most of the really ‘disgusting’ diseases, like smallpox or ebola. So the relative lack of panic over the coronavirus could be nothing to do with disgust or the lack of it.
But still, I suspect that the emotional concern over COVID-19 would be higher if it caused, say, spots. Even if the spots were painless and didn’t scar, they would make COVID-19 “visible” and thus easier to fear and be disgusted by.