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A laboratory test kit for coronavirus.

A laboratory test kit for coronavirus. Credit: AP

Fear enters on seeds of doubt, then creeps among us like a vine.

That's worth remembering amid the torrent of news reports we're digesting as the coronavirus spreads — here, there, pretty much everywhere.

The nature of the disease, the response of governments to it, and all other evidence suggests that Long Islanders, New Yorkers and Americans have yet to see its full extent. The illnesses and deaths reported, and the parallel toll on the economy, are just beginning.

So it's important to keep some perspective, to understand the difference between fear and concern, between fear and panic, between a response that's healthy and one that's destructive. Former President Franklin Roosevelt understood that intuitively, with his caution that the only thing to fear is fear itself. "A Game of Thrones" novelist George R.R. Martin put it another way: "Fear cuts deeper than swords."

Humanity has been here before. Epidemics throughout history have been marked by fear among the threatened, and by the xenophobic resentments that followed. We see a glimmer now in the many empty Chinese restaurants and in the harassment that people of Asian heritage have endured in places like Los Angeles and Toronto, echoes of what happened to Mexican Americans during the swine flu pandemic in 2009. Fear divides.

Machiavelli knew that centuries ago. Fear is stronger than love, the Renaissance philosopher said. People are controlled by their instinct for self-preservation. To Machiavelli, fear was a political motivator, as we see today. And fear, like a virus, is contagious.

On social media, research shows that most of the most-shared coronavirus stories are not designed to educate the public. They try to provoke fear with sensational headlines, misinformation and debunked claims (like the virus came from bat soup, or it was leaked from the lab that created it, or a patent for the virus was filed a few years ago).

This is unfortunate, because we know one thing for sure: The strongest antidote to fear is information — accurate information from reliable and trusted sources, a problem for the administration in Washington in particular. In Iran, officials worried about scaring people made the outbreak there worse by lying and withholding information, further scaring people. Here, even when the information has been good, at times it has seemed contradictory.

Go about your normal business, authorities say — as schools close, teams play in empty arenas, flights are grounded, conventions and trade shows are canceled, college students from New York and elsewhere are ordered home from study-abroad programs, a cruise ship is marooned off San Francisco to test passengers and crew (more than 20 were positive), and Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft ask 50,000 employees to work from home. And as New York and Long Island numbers rise.

Understandably, we react. And we react understandably. We wipe out stores of items like hand sanitizers, face masks, toilet paper and canned goods. We eat in instead of eating out. We cancel trips. We walk the fine line between concern and fear. At this moment, in this region, we really don't have to fear. Hopefully, we never have to. Fear is what's gripping people in Washington state whose loved ones, compromised and aged, ideal targets, live in the nursing home that has seen at least eight residents killed by the virus and others sickened.

The debilitating  lack of testing nationwide means we don't yet know the severity of this crisis. We should expect the unexpected, like where the virus might surface next or how the death rate will change as more people finally are tested. It could get a lot worse. It might not. We learn when young to fear the unknown. That doesn't mean we have to.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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