Fear causes ‘misinfodemic’ and other wackiness

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By RALPH MILLER

COVIDian Delusional Bizz-arre Wacko-sis

— that’s my professional best diagnosis.

Things have gotten quite crazy ‘round here!

Are end times a comin’? Apocalypse near?

The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented, having gone world-wide in record short time, spreading rapidly in clusters, inflicting great direct and indirect collateral damage, including physical, psychological/emotional, social and economic problems. It will likely be with us for quite a while.

Much is unknown, scientific information is evolving, policies and recommendations inconsistent and shifting, and politics intrudes. Misinformation/disinformation abounds — a disruptive anti-social “misinfodemic” clouds public understanding.

In times of unexpected uncertainty and threatening, unpredictable, disruptive societal upheaval, such as the sudden appearance of a global pandemic, humans are more prone to fear/anxiety-based states and experiences, including increased general irritability, nightmares, depression, alcohol/drug addiction, phobias, paranoid conspiratorial thinking and fear/anger-based destructive offensive or defensive action.

A phobia is a specific, persistent, strong irrational fear that is not amenable to corrective information. Paranoia involves more complex irrational, delusional belief systems with exaggerated self-reference, such as personal victimness and perceived threat, and/or grandeur/superiority. Both often occur in the same person — a fear-based condition we call “dipolar paranoia.” 

Unfortunately, COVID-related masks have become a hotly contested, symbolic political/cultural issue in some parts of the world, especially in North America. There are many types of masks of different materials, with varying, evolving evidence of safety and effectiveness regarding the protection of the user and/or people with whom they come in contact. The readily available anti-viral masks appear to primarily protect others from “you.” Israeli scientists have recently developed a mask currently being tested in China for its virus-killing capacity.

And, believe it or not, some people, even here on Salt Spring, still argue that COVID doesn’t really even exist, in spite of the international scientific consensus. It is interesting to note that numerous countries with ongoing violent border disputes spanning many decades — such as India/China, India/Pakistan, China/Russia, Israel/Palestine — all agree on this one issue: COVID is real and masks are recommended, if not mandated, for personal and societal protection.

We’ve coined the term “maskophobia” to refer to the severe illogical fear of people wearing COVID masks, as well as fear of the masks themselves. This pathological maskophobic condition is typically embedded in paranoid conspiracy delusions involving ambiguous nefarious forces, including such potential candidates as They/Them, The Government, Deep State, CIA, U.S. Democrats, China, WHO, AI, aliens, Bill Gates, 5G and chem-trail spewers, possibly “in cahoots” with the “mainstream media.”

To top off the Wackosis, the QAnons are popular with the out-going U.S. president. This far-right conspiracy group alleges that the world is run by a powerful cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles operating a global child sex-trafficking ring that includes high-profile Democrats. Really! You can’t make this stuff up!  Check it out online from Wikipedia.

Some predatory maskophobic people seek out and aggressively confront mask-wearers in public, sometimes in swarming packs, such as the recent BC Ferries incident resulting in schedule delays and RCMP involvement. Some people insist they have a “right” to enter private and regulated public property (e.g., stores, markets and parks) without the requested/required masks. For example, here on Salt Spring some maskophobes have reportedly spit at store owners who require them to wear a mask freely offered.

Even the widely recommended two-metre social distancing often meets with active defiance. Some people purposely bump into others in public areas. And there is occasional mocking imposition of unwanted hugs, which is technically assault.

Why are some people so scared of masks and mask-wearers? In addition to normal associations of surgical masks with potentially risky/unpleasant medical and dental procedures, masks make it harder to recognize others and to interpret their facial expressions and lip-reading cues. Some fear that mask-wearing may harm them. Some anti-mask folks adopt a compensatory superiority stance, looking down at mask-wearers as fear-mongering naive sleeping sheep in denial, robotically marching to the cadence of evil-doers intent on doing us harm. However, the dominant factor here is likely that the mask has become a symbol of the frightening, incomprehensibly complex COVID-19 pandemic.

To mask or not to mask? That is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to silently tolerate the slings and arrows of outrageous maskophobes (at more than six feet, of course), or to try to reason with them. Lots of luck with that. Perhaps gently smile, show them a little love, blow them a kiss and wave “Bye bye.”

It doesn’t seem likely that many of the extremists will soften and open. Not at this point. Too much personal cognitive dissonance exists between contradictory, incompatible emotionally backed beliefs and group identifications. For many, the COVID issues are black and white, with little awareness or allowance for nuance, shades of grey or change.

Yet, it is important that we compassionately do what we can personally, socially and politically to minimize the extremists’ potential for harm — to themselves, as well as to others and to society as a whole. Of course, we cannot base our own sense of inner peace and well-being on others’ beliefs and actions. It is in our own best interests to see the innocence in their fearfulness. Our primary responsibility is in our own conscious action in thought, word and deed: loving kindness, compassion and understanding.

A final few thoughts: Swami Tattvavidananda reminds us, “People are nuts, I tell you.”

I say: “A little common sense goes a long way, or should we say uncommon sense?”

Meanwhile, as B.C.’s Dr. Bonnie Henry advises, “Be Kind, Be Calm, Be Safe.”      

A Course in Miracles reminds us, “Fear appears in many forms, but love is one.”

The writer is a former psychology professor, scientist in Ottawa and India, psychologist and teacher in the Gulf Islands School District, and is currently semi-retired.

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