No Matter How Dire the Coronavirus Threat, Fear Is Not the Way Out | Opinion

March of 1933. It was still winter, literally and metaphorically, in the United States. There was no official measure of the unemployment rate, but it was at least 25 percent. Thousands of banks had shuttered, the deposits of millions of Americans gone. People were camped out in tent cities in New York and Washington. Europe was mired in an equally intense depression, and every halting move of governments everywhere seemed to make things worse.

And so when Franklin Roosevelt, wheelchair bound and determined, took the oath of the presidency, these were his first words: "Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance." The economic Great Depression did not end with those words and indeed lasted for years, but from that moment, the nadir was passed, the darkness lifted, and people began to believe that the future would hold better things.

It is an understatement to say that we could use not just those words but that injection of hope and the end of fear. FDR understood —surprisingly, given his own somewhat cosseted upbringing, but perhaps in part due to his near-death experience with polio—that fear destroys. He understood that no matter how dire a threat, fear is never the foundation of a way out, a way back. It is paralyzing, dividing and ultimately self-fulfilling. And he would recognize in the United States today something very similar to early 1933, that in the throes of a viral pandemic, we are mired in a psychological one as well: we are in the grip of fear, and it is paralyzing us.

That fear is manifesting in multiple and corrosive ways. The early polarized and partisan narrative of "you can kill the economy or you can kill people" has turned by now into a red-blue divide. Multiple states with Republican governing majorities have pushed to reopen their economies before the virus has crested or been contained in the name of doing no further damage to economic life, while in most Democratic states, the mantra is that, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put it, "as long as you have your health," the rest can be rebuilt, and that there is nothing worse than death.

The way both extremes are expressed—open nothing till we are safe physically or open everything so we can be safe economically—is grounded in fear, either that economic life will be destroyed in trying to protect against the virus and that personal life will be destroyed without extreme measures. Both fears are, without question, reasonable. Both are, in some sense, true. Added to them is an additional toxic message: The belief that whoever wants to accelerate the opening is endorsing "human sacrifice," and the conviction that those demanding a continued shutdown are intent on violating life and liberty. What FDR understood, however, was that fear as the guiding emotion precludes hard choices and forceful, coherent actions that are effective.

What he had specifically in mind in the spring of 1933 was the continued tendency of people to try to get all of their money out of banks and keep their cash at home. In an age before federal deposit insurance, "bank runs" were a chronic threat. And bank runs were so named because, well, in a panic people ran to the bank knowing that if they got there too late, the money would be gone, given that then, as now, a bank lent out much more money than it had on hand from deposits. In the face of continuing economic meltdown, millions of people during the first years of the Depression tried to get their money out, which accelerated the number of bank failures, which accelerated the number of foreclosures on farms, homes and businesses, which led to more bank failures, which created more unemployment, which made people panic more.

The individual fear was perfectly rational: Bank failures meant that you could lose all of your money, and getting it out was essential. But the collective fear was self-defeating and destructive, in that it intensified the crisis and ultimately was self-fulfilling. That was the cycle that FDR knew needed to be stopped, which he did.

Today, the dual fears of the cure being worse than the disease and the disease being the worst thing imaginable are driving conflicting decisions state by state and confusion nationally that threaten to leave us in the worst of worlds. By shutting down, but not quite enough, and then by opening up potentially too soon and probably half-heartedly, we risk becoming a combination of Sweden and Brazil, with the most uncompromising elements of China thrown into the mix. Again, each fear is in its way justified: Sufficient and continuous economic destruction is much more than a pocketbook issue and will cause lasting damage to lives well beyond livelihood—we know depression, abuse, suicide and drug use can be as lethal as any disease. Continued unchecked spread of the virus will kill people, hundreds of thousands in the United States and millions globally. But choosing to act on both fears is a recipe for both more death and more economic destruction.

Moving beyond fear is not itself a solution. It is a space for solutions. Fear of the disease leads some (as many of our Facebook feeds will attest) to announce that they intend to curtail their contact for the next years—not weeks, not months—including travel and venturing out for all but essentials. That is presented, legitimately, as a way to inoculate all of us against the spread of lethal pathogen. But in that fear, the costs of a decision to be as safe as possible get lost. If everyone decided that, the economic devastation globally would almost certainly be more lethal than the disease at current understood fatality rates: The entire country of Cambodia, for instance, depends on tourism and travel for more than a third of its gross domestic product. Tourism is 13 percent of jobs in Florida. A multitude of individual choices meant to avoid the disease could become the travel and tourism equivalent of a bank run.

American Flag Coronavirus
A wind-blown American flag at the Tear Drop 9/11 Memorial flies over the skyline of New York City as the sun sets on May 3 in Bayonne, New Jersey. Gary Hershorn/Getty

The United States has always been a complex society without much consensus, but the fear divide hobbles everything. You can make a rational argument for trading the harms of somewhat higher deaths in return for less permanent economic and social damage, as Sweden has, and you can make a logical case for severe lockdowns as China did in Wuhan or Spain did in Madrid and beyond. You can also point to a more destructive mix of denial and bluster without much coherence, as is true in Brazil. But a mix of all of the above is about as nonoptimal as possible, generating a series of half-measures that ultimately undermine each.

Halting the cascade of fears won't end the pandemic, but it might alleviate a downward spiral of half-measures and incoherent responses. One way to do so might be to heed FDR's wisdom; another might be to begin to focus less on the wisdom of the Cassandras that are now being highlighted. Just as in 2008-09, voices that predicted the crisis are now seen as prescient and wise, as they were in their way. But Cassandras are strongest as reminders that we might have been better prepared for the crisis that was coming and came. They are rarely the right voices for what to do once it is upon us. The strengths of Cassandras—ignoring false senses of security, an acute eye for unexamined or unacknowledged risks and weakness, shouting into the wind until their voices are hoarse—stir up fear once the crisis has manifested.

In a time of urgency, we need both to recognize what is happening and have a vision for a way forward. Accepting that there are no choices without consequences and that there are no choices without pain is hard enough. Doing that in a climate of near hysteria is impossible.

Zachary Karabell is the author of 12 books and the founder of the Progress Network.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.