Fear in the Time of Pandemics and Terrorism

by Callum Watts

Central London deserted during lockdown, by Martin Dudek

I worry. Asking someone out, speaking in public, stepping onto a flight, for me these mundane moments percolate with anxiety. These are personal fears, inner battles of no real relevance to the wider world and disconnected from any broader social meaning. Over the past couple of years though, I have had two experiences of fear that were both personal and political. I was caught in a terrorist attack and was struck down with covid-19 during the global pandemic. In each case the fear of death echoed bone deep within me, and in each case that fear reverberated through the body politic and society. What interests me is the political aims for which that fear can be harnessed and the authenticity of the use of that fear. I don’t believe that we should be stoking fear for political ends, but we cannot escape the fact that our fears are already in the political arena, and so we must learn to live with them.

Picture a warm summer night in London’s bustling Borough Market. I’m enjoying one of those endless evenings of conversation, eating and drinking with my family. My sister has just left early to meet some friends, when all of a sudden running, scuffling and shouting can be heard. It’s difficult to explain why, but a certain franticness in the movement and a strident tone to the shouts make my blood run cold. My whole body freezes and a tension forms in my chest, like a knot being pulled tight. Then as screams and shouts mingle with gun fire and things smashing, the knot dissolves as adrenaline courses through me. I’m alert, focussed, prepared to take control and spring into action. Months later, that initial stab of fear would still occasionally manifeste and get my adrenaline pumping. This could be triggered by being in a public space or on public transport, a loud noise, or by the memory of someone bleeding out on the floor. These fears were mine, yet they quickly became absorbed into a wider debate.

In their social dimension, that adrenal impulse to take control gets used to legitimise state coercion, justified by a fear of some ‘other’. What was surprising was that it became impossible not to see my attempt to overcome my own anxiety as being reflected in a wider social battle. My agoraphobia was mirrored in a wider Islamophobia. The agora was the center of public life in ancient Greek cities, where all issues would be discussed and debated. And the public space for discussion and debate happens to be one of the very things that is under threat in the UK, in the name of protecting ourselves from the ‘other’. The UK Prevent strategy aims to limit the sorts of ideas that can be shared in educational establishments for fear that they can lead to radicalisation. And so I felt that if I could respond to my fight or flight response appropriately whilst riding the bus or going to the cinema, then as a community we too should respond to our fears thoughtfully and calmly.

Earlier this year I encountered that fear of death again when I contracted covid-19. The illness started with a general sense of unease that progressively developed into nausea and feverishness. Within four days I was having night sweats, chills, had lost my sense of smell and taste, found my breathing laboured and was completely exhausted. For about ten days I could barely manage to get out of bed. For a month after that I experienced shortness of breath, weakness, and various troubling symptoms that recurred seemingly at random. Here my fear was not acute, but insidious and grew over time. It progressively infiltrated different aspects of my life. After weeks of random symptoms, false recoveries, I was left saddled with anxiety, panic and insomnia. My slowly developing fear was also mirrored in our politics. It took weeks for the UK government to decide to act on the virus, as it was not perceived to be a real threat. But progressively every day activities became taboo. We learnt that we must stop spending time with each other, that we could no longer safely leave the house, and we would no longer be able to hug and touch our loved ones without putting ourselves and others at risk.

Since the peak of lockdown the UK government has been trying hard to allay and diminish these fears, and to play down the nature of the risk. This has been done in the name of preventing catastrophic damage to the economy and people’s livelihoods. In other words, fear of a greater evil. We see a similar pattern in the US, where fear of the virus is being presented as irrational and even authoritarian. This is happening in spite of the poor judgement that has characterised political decision making during the pandemic. Many of us who contracted the virus see the caution we’ve developed around our social interactions as necessary, even as it leaves many aspects of our lives deeply impoverished. The fear of the virus does not seem overwrought, whilst the fear of an economic downturn is being used to justify actions which could result in far worse outcomes in the long run. I write this as both the US and the UK are still at very real risk of second peaks and further deaths.

It’s interesting to note that the political responses above feel at odds with the experience of those affected. What seems to matter most about the political use of fear is how it gets packaged up and who gets to claim it. I would be surprised to find out that anyone present during that terrorist attack would sympathise with government policies that sought to attack and demonise Islam. If anything, the shared experience was one of people from diverse backgrounds banding together in terrifying circumstances to resist a group of delusional thugs. Likewise, I believe that those of us who have experienced covid-19 first hand are the least likely to want to rush out of a lockdown, not because we are scared for ourselves (hopefully we have some immunity now), but because the sickness is not something we would wish on our worst enemy. What fascinates me about both these cases is the connection between an individual confrontation with fear and the way that anxiety is amplified or minimised in the political arena.

A friend of mine who has suffered with anxiety for years recently explained that it was not always possible to completely eradicate anxiety, and it’s important to learn to manage and live with it. Fears cannot be simply dismissed out of hand, nor put on a pedestal so that they define us. Engaging with them involves introspection, debate, and negotiation. These habits should form a key part of the political discourse in the same way. Thought of like this, fear is not always a regressive or reactionary force. It can be a motivator to overcome challenges and our own limitations. Recently the BLM protests around the world are a great example of the way personal fear, in this case the fear of violence at the hands of the authorities, is being harnessed to push for a positive political purpose. Similarly the environmental movements have tried with limited success to create a sense of existential angst around the impending catastrophe of climate change. Perhaps by focussing on shared visceral experiences, fear can be a force for positive political change and liberation. In a discussion of the fear of death Plutarch says that “[t]he premeditation of death is the premeditation of liberty; he who has learned to die has unlearned to serve.” It is by learning how to respond to and master our fears that we can become free not just as individuals, but also as a collective.