By Dato' Sri Vijay Eswaran
As we live through the once-in-a-century pandemic, the likes of which a majority of us have not witnessed in our lifetime, fear of the unknown and the panic it generates in the masses is perhaps the most contagious virus of our time.
In the last six weeks or so, we have seen people panic buying and stockpiling food and essentials and clearing out supermarket shelves here in Malaysia.
In other parts of the world, disturbing incidents include hate crime and racist attacks against the Asian community, and an increasing number of people flocking to gun stores in the US to buy firearms to protect themselves against "the end times".
The motivation behind all this frenzy is fear. The thing about fear in the digital age is that it can be transmitted instantly over the airwaves from smartphone to smartphone through group chats and social media feeds. It is worrisome that it can spread from one to many almost at the speed of light!
Fear spreads way faster than this dangerous yet invisible virus.
Balancing fear with facts
The progression of the fear contagion is not merely mathematical or even geometrical, but astronomical and that's dangerous.
Today, fear has paralyzed the planet more so than the virus itself. Don't get me wrong. We have every reason to be worried and must act with caution. However, it is imperative that during such challenging times, we make decisions and choices based on logic and rationale instead of being driven by fear.
Fear has a tendency to overtake the facts. It is fully capable of taking us on flights of nightmarish fancy.
The danger lies in the two extremes when fear overtakes. One is being so paralyzed by fear that we freeze, and the other is being trapped in a virtual euphoria of fear that we simply react without thinking. Both are equally dangerous. Fear has a peculiar tendency to remove the balance from our thinking.
It is especially important during this time of crisis to separate fact from fiction.
COVID-19 has put the panic in the pandemic. An "infodemic" of misleading information and fake news is spreading more quickly than the coronavirus outbreak. It is up to each and every one of us to curb this misinformation outbreak by relying only on trusted sources of information.
Fear will not stop the virus, only facts can. Now more than ever, the world needs to be balanced in its thought and approach.
Don't stop living
We have survived wars, earthquakes, floods and famine, the outbreak of SARS, MERS, Zika, bird flu, Ebola and the like. Worse calamities have befallen the world, and there will be more. But we will prevail, as we have always done. Just as long as we do not fall into a fear-induced frenzy.
In 1948, CS Lewis wrote about the atomic bomb in an essay titled "On Living in an Atomic Age".
"This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes to find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds."
These words bear some relevance to our situation today if you replace the words atomic bomb with COVID-19.
Once again, I emphasize here that in no way am I diminishing the very real threat we all face today. But Lewis' words are a reminder that while the threat of death is serious, it's not novel. Let's not succumb to panic or allow fear to dominate our minds and paralyze our hearts.
We are in this together
The fact that we find ourselves living in a time today when toilet paper is now a precious black-market commodity is a reflection of the collective fear frenzy of society.
Now more than ever, we need to band together as one (figuratively speaking of course, in these times of social distancing). We cannot afford to lose our sense of goodwill and compassion for others in this mad desperate attempt to save ourselves.
The cost of all this panic is that the weak and vulnerable will feel its ultimate impact. Our humanity is being tested every single day and we need to prevail. It is only by caring for each other that we can come out on the other side of this relatively unscathed.
Reach out to whoever you can in your community and help them out in whatever way you can.
My wife and I have contributed through our Foundation to an NGO that is distributing food and grocery items to migrant workers and refugees with the help of brave and selfless volunteers.
We know of friends and families who are cooking meals for the homeless and risking citations by the authorities to go out and distribute them to the needy.
I know some of my employees have joined volunteer groups and are making home-made personal protective equipment like face masks and gowns for healthcare workers.
I urge all my fellow Malaysians to adhere to the guidelines of the MCO by staying at home. Use this opportunity to redesign your life. Learn a new skill, virtually reconnect with people you have been meaning to call but never found the time to earlier, start a home workout program (so many YouTube videos are available), use this time to reflect, meditate, and plan your future.
Let us take this time to practice gratitude and thank the warriors who are keeping us safe. The healthcare warriors battling in the hospital corridors instead of trenches. The sanitation workers who continue to clean our streets and collect our garbage. All those who are keeping our essential services afloat. They are the reminders of humanity that we need.
We are fighting a war and the humane within us must emerge victorious in order for humanity to prevail.
(Dato' Sri Vijay Eswaran is Executive Chairman of QI Group of Companies.)