COVID-19: Avoiding Fear and Panic

By Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire, England, and Author of our Coronavirus COVID-19 Guidance

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Skills and tactics

We will get through this with the right combination of skills and tactics.  First, listening to the science, second making clear and calm decisions in light of these and third, explaining to everyone what they can do.

That’s where people managers come in.  We need to prepare our workforces but we also need to promote the vital pro-social behavior we need to get through the coming months.

We are going to need several sets of key psychological and people skills in the next few months.

  • The skills to communicate and engage people well
  • The skills to explain the rationale for actions and decisions we make well
  • The skills to keep people feeling resilient
  • The skills to help people retain a strong sense of purpose, even when they may worry about the future
  • The skills to promote behavior which promotes the common good, protects the vulnerable and emphasises we are all in this together, at a time when selfishness could take over, with disastrous consequences for the weakest and poorest.

It’s important that we know the facts – both to combat the virus and to combat the spread of fear and panic that goes with it.

What is COVID-19?

We are dealing with COVID-19, a coronavirus, a virus from a family of viruses that causes illness in humans of varying kinds. The virus is likely to have jumped species from an animal to a human (and to be honest unless you’re involved in sequencing the genetic code to make a vaccine or stop it happening again it’s pretty irrelevant which animal species it jumped from.) It was first notified on 31 December in China. You can go to for more information.

The virus has spread rapidly, largely by droplet spread. 81% of us will get mild illness like a bad flu,14% of us more severe, 5% may need hospital care and less than 2% will die. Most people recover. But you don’t read about that in the media.

It’s new. And while there are some things we know, there are other things we don’t.  We don’t yet have a vaccine.  We don’t yet have antiviral drugs so treatment is for the symptoms and problems caused by the virus.  And we can’t stop it altogether. And some of us can’t work from home.

Protecting ourselves: Six to Fix

Well, we do know from experience of dealing with viruses like these and others that there are things which really will slow the spread of it, and this remains important for everyone, doubly so for those who have to come to work.

There are things that disrupt the spread of the virus. These are all about not allowing the virus a route into your body or from one person to another. I call these the six to fix:

  1. First, washing your hands frequently and well for at least twenty seconds with good technique (we have links to videos below). Before you leave for work, when you get to work, before all breaks, before lunch, after lunch and when you get home.
  2. Not touching your face, eyes, nose or mouth so you deny the virus a route into your body. A good rule is “keep your hands below your shoulders unless you’ve just washed them well” if you find the “don’t touch” rule a challenge.
  3. Staying a meter apart from people and not having handshakes and so on at meetings
  4. Coughing and sneezing into a tissue, binning it and washing your hands (or coughing into the crook of your elbow) so you deny drops from coughs and sneezes a route onto your hands or surfaces and then into the eyes, mouth, and nose of others
  5. Decent and frequent cleaning of surfaces people touch frequently, with detergent, like lift buttons, light switches, door handles and so on
  6. Self-isolating if you have a new continuous cough and a fever so if you have the virus, you don’t spread it.  And if you have something else, well you won’t spread that other.

Hand sanitizer is a reasonable second best if you don’t have soap and water. Making people use it coming into meetings and public buildings in addition to hand washing is an extra layer of defense.

Should I do this if it’s mild?

Well, you do this because although you may have mild disease (do you really want something like ‘flu anyway?) others may get it much worse.  You protect the vulnerable. Doing so is an act of love and charity.  You may not get it bad, but what if someone you loved did?

What’s the government’s strategy?

This is, as I alluded to above, surrounded by noise, myth and poor reporting.  The government has recognized that we cannot stop this virus.  It has also recognized that those who are older (over 60 or 70) and folk with serious underlying health conditions like weakened immune systems, diabetes and lung disease will have more severe disease. They have taken a very precautionary approach to self-isolation and social distancing, which will have business continuity implications.

Our priority has to be to protect the vulnerable from the worst consequences of disease. It is a sign of a civilized society how well we take that seriously.  So we need to make sure that the NHS capacity is kept for those who really need it.

Slowing the spread of the virus means we won’t over-top the NHS capacity, we will end up with fewer infections overall and we won’t end up with vulnerable people being unable to get the best care. And it’s important then that those of us with mild illness – when and if we get COVID-19 – look after ourselves and each other as much as we can.


It’s also important that we choose the right time to close companies, offices and businesses. And we don’t let that up too soon or too quickly.  Even if we are bored and fed up. Why?  Well, watch this simple video that explains it well.

Never mind about herd immunity for now.  And never mind about some of the self-proclaimed experts who claim they know best but don’t produce any evidence for it.  We will get through this.  The vast majority of us who get it will recover, and if we take the steps described here the most vulnerable who get it will be given the best chance of recovery.

Other countries have stopped this virus, why haven’t we?

Nobody has stopped this virus. People have slowed it down. But nobody has stopped it. It is dangerous to make comparisons with other countries because they test people at different rates and stages and they responded at different stages. The type of testing, reliability of tracing people who’ve been in contact with infected people all varies.

Timing of what we do is everything, and an awful lot of what you have seen on social media is misleading and inaccurate.  Go into “lockdown” too soon, and when you all come back out, the virus will spread again as the video above shows.

Experts claim the government is wrong. Why aren’t you listening?

Actually a lot of those experts aren’t experts in communicable disease control. While it might be fair comment that the national strategy could be better explained, having lots of people shout at government that they know better without producing detailed evidence of that isn’t helping.

Government is going to publish its modeling. That’s sensible. It should enable open, transparent and respectful discussion of the science from all scientific disciplines and experts of goodwill so we can all have confidence we have the best strategy for these times. But shouting “I know best” when none of us do just drives fear.  Equally, you need to prompt the scientists in your organization to explain the science in the clearest terms possible.

Managers in the workplace

Well, I think there are five priorities here for business leaders and managers:

  • Slow the spread of the virus as much as possible so you can keep essential services running – get folk doing the six to fix and make sure you have the equipment you need for services like personal protective equipment for care services.
  • Help with business continuity so you can plan for sickness absence. Government suggests up to 80% of people may get it with 21% sickness absence over a 16-week period. That modeling will change as we know more. Speak to your Director of Public Health or planning group locally. What are you doing about sickness reporting, benefits and also help employees who may be in financial hardship? You don’t need to shut your business down or stop all meetings. Many people are over-reacting. But if that happens for a period of time, how would you keep business going? And how will you ensure meetings and events you do run are risk-assessed so the risk of the virus spreading is reduced as much as possible?  Are some workforces like Fire so important you need to go the extra mile to keep them running? Time to speak to Occupational Health or your Director of Public Health.
  • Reassurance and resilience of employees and others – there is no need to panic buy or shut down your social life. Our economy needs to keep running for us to come through this. There’s plenty of food and resources for everyone if we just remember that we have a duty of care to each other to get through this calmly and rationally. And stamp our prejudice and hate.
  • Promoting the mental health of everyone while we run through this crisis – especially front line workers and those dealing with peoples’ anger and fear. Here’s a good resource on mental health in these times and a podcast on self-isolation is coming out shortly in the Behavioural Science and COVID19 podcast mini-series.
  • Promote the care and love of the most vulnerable – are we ensuring food banks have enough to distribute so nobody goes hungry, are volunteers able to check on the most vulnerable and isolated?  Can you do befriending of people by phone? Actively challenge selfish and panic behavior and panic buying. Can you create a pro-social campaign to help others and channel energy and anxiety into that?

Understanding human behavior

Lastly, you could understand the dynamics of how people behave in crises. They tend to behave in ways that make sense to them because they are responding to fear, and they often respond by exerting control over the things they can control. So panic buying, those annoying folk nicking the hand sanitizer from offices and everyone moving their travel times to avoid crowds but ending up in the office early fall into that category. Understand the psychology behind this behavior, and especially create social norms and other barriers to people behaving in ways that are harmful.

And create space where people can grieve the seismic changes to our lives that we will need to cope with for the coming season and find ways of adjustment.

Stronger together

Together we can slow the epidemic of COVID19 and protect our most vulnerable. And they can stop the epidemic of fear and panic which is making it worse for everyone, and which, if unchecked, will linger with ill effect long after we have better treatment and prevention strategies for COVID19

We will get through this.


Where do I get more information? Here are some helpful links.

You can find videos on good hygiene technique here as well as FAQs and other materials

Mental Health advice and

Behavioral science Podcasts including self-isolation

Self-isolation advice

Guidance on social distancing

Guidance on staying at home with possible infection

Guidance on mass gatherings

The Psychology of Panic Buying

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