Do everything you can to limit the spread of coronavirus

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I don’t typically write follow up columns, but in this case I’m going to have to make an exception.


A couple weeks ago, the column I wrote declared in rather concrete terms that I was not worried about the coronavirus. What I was more worried about than the virus, I said, was the impact that mass panic over the virus was having, and would continue to have, on society.


The day after I wrote it, Gov. Janet Mills issued a recommendation that gatherings of 250 people or more be postponed or canceled, in the wake of Maine’s first COVID-19 positive patient. A few days later, Mills revised the recommendation to be gatherings of 50, and then a few days later 10. On Tuesday she went even further, ordering “nonessential” businesses to close most of their public-facing operations.


To many readers, the column had, as one commenter put it, “aged like unrefrigerated egg salad.”


Indeed, the column has become a source of derision, with the liberal Maine People’s Alliance getting a good laugh at my expense in one of their recent podcasts, and fellow Bangor Daily News columnist Amy Fried criticized conservative pundits for downplaying the dangers of coronavirus.


Let’s take a step back and remember where we were two weeks ago, because it is very important to have the benefit of context. This was before Mills had issued the 250-person gathering recommendation, before schools began to close across the state, and before businesses began to be tightly restricted.


At that moment, though, panic among the general public had begun to set in. For no logical reason whatsoever, people across Maine — and the country — began to frantically purchase normal consumer goods in bulk, doing things like hoarding more toilet paper than they could use in several months. 


In my local Hannaford, I actually witnessed a physical confrontation between two women who were fighting over a small package of tissue paper. Hand sanitizer began to go for hundreds of dollars online.


Fear had caused an irrational reaction among the general public, which in turn caused people who were not reacting hysterically to contribute to the problem themselves as they reacted to the shortage with worry.


My column was about that fear, that panic, and how it threatened the fiber of our society.


Nothing about what I said in that column suggested that the coronavirus was not a serious issue, that you should ignore the advice of health care professionals, or that we shouldn’t take serious action to combat it. Quite the opposite, as I specifically said, “I’m not telling you to ignore anything a health care professional is telling you about the disease.”


Yes, I used the term “hysteria,” in the column, but I was specifically referring to how people in the country were reacting. I was not, as some are suggesting, saying that the cancellation of events like South by Southwest was “hysterical.”


If I do have a mea culpa for you, it would be that I thought such cancellations were unnecessarily draconian at the time, and today I realize that my dislike of those decisions was, in retrospect, misplaced. Something I’m happy to admit, if I’m being frank. But that admission doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t referring to those decisions when I used the word “hysteria.”


In the end, what I did say in the column was that fear and panic are the enemies of reason, and I worry about the decisions we make — individually, and as a nation — when we are guided entirely by them.


There is a difference between, as I put it in the column, “living your life in fear and panic” about a virus, and acknowledging a danger and logically and dispassionately responding to it.


At the end of the day, that was my point. Don’t panic. Listen to public health officials, socially distance yourself as they say, and do everything you can to limit the spread of the virus.


Matthew Gagnon of Yarmouth is the chief executive officer of the Maine Policy Institute, a free market policy think tank based in Portland. A Hampden native, he previously served as a senior strategist for the Republican Governors Association in Washington, D.C.

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