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Don Rogers: Sugar for our fears

The coronavirus could take down China’s government, but it’s nothing like the ordinary flu.

The outbreak — more extensive than SARS! — also shows how our imaginations frighten us far more than the prosaic killers in our lives.

We fly in terror of the one in 10 million chance of an airliner crash without a thought about the car crashes that kill nearly 40,000 Americans each year. Freak over the 120 or so who die in a bad year from classic mass shootings committed by crazed strangers in public places while shrugging at the 40,000 other gun deaths by the ones and twos. Worry about cannabis when 70,000 people a year have fatal overdoses of readily prescribed pain killers, or the 90,000 or so felled by their taste for alcohol.

Furniture kills more Americans each year than terrorist attacks, with one or two notable exceptions in the past four decades. Muslims have more to worry about at the hands of U.S. citizens than the other way around.

And the common flu this season has killed many, many times more people than the coronavirus: 10,000 to as many as 25,000 in the United Satiates alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Worldwide, the flu kills 300,000 to 600,000 people a year.

Of course, the mortality rate is higher for known cases of coronavirus at 2% to the flu’s 0.095% toll. Our fear isn’t so far fetched, even if calculations of the coronavirus mortality rate drop with time as they surely will.

Still, the plain ol’ flu kills about as many people as car crashes most years. Some years, like the 2017-18 flu season, the toll is double.

So why aren’t we living in stark terror of the flu? Why do we fear helicopters and planes, which are so much safer than climbing in an automobile? Why are we terrorizing our children with endless drills at school for something that almost surely will never happen?

This isn’t rational.

*****

My adult daughter loves places like Alaska and Glacier National Park, especially Glacier. Her favorite thing to do there? Hike, of course.

But aren’t there, like, grizzly bears there? Why yes. Yes, there are.

So why do you have to go hiking, never mind camping or backpacking, in these places where grizzly bears live?

She looks at me like I’m an idiot.

Mosquitos kill something like a million humans each year. All bears taken together, not just counting grizzlies, only get an average of three humans in the United States and Canada combined, 40 across the entire globe. Bees are far more deadly. So are pet dogs.

Still. I’m not mollified. Not in the least. I’m not sure I’d get out of the car in Alaska or Glacier or Yellowstone. OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But forget about hiking, fishing, going on a trail run or a bike ride.

Are you crazy?

*****

Regular news gravitates to our fears, no question. Mistake the novel for the everyday and soon you’ll believe our safe towns are crime-ridden, fire seasons never end, the cops are all crooked, the planet will cook in 12 years tops, conservatives or liberals — pick your bogeyman — represent the very devil, whoever is president eats babies for breakfast. Oh, and pandemic is right around the corner. Civil war is nigh. Things have never been worse. Oh my.

Bear attacks lead because they are so novel, … news. Those millions of planes taking off and landing safely don’t make for anything anyone will read. One crashes, well now, that’s a whole different story.

With real news, journalists, at least the local community ones, care about the truth and are genuinely distressed at learning they’ve gotten something wrong. Their fealty is to the story itself, as much as can be properly reported, cross checked, confirmed and so on, all under tight deadlines.

Fake news preys on fear and seeks only to stoke it higher, mainly for political purposes. It’s sugar and speed to the comparatively bland fare that well-reported reality serves up. And oh so addictive.

The antidote? A deep breath. Reflection on sources, probability, perspective, deeper trends as well as the now, the novel, the news. Just a little thought. We’re capable of this.

We have access to so much more information and misinformation than ever before. Can we grow wise enough to handle it all? There really are lions and tigers and bears out there, after all. Just not nearly so many as we fear.

Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, Lake Wildwood Independent, and Sierra Sun. He can be reached at drogers@theunion.com or 530-477-4299.


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