So here we go again. The coronavirus has mutated, as we’ve always known it would, and the new variant, called omicron, is spreading fast. Should we be scared or sanguine? Should we change our behavior and plans or carry on? To answer these questions, we need three pieces of information that we don’t yet have. So we just have to wait. And for many of us, the waiting itself is the problem.
That’s because waiting — for tidings ill or good, ironically — causes anxiety. And it is an affliction that, via the many stress hormones it sends coursing through our bodies, torments us almost as a virus does.
Here are the three pieces of information we’re waiting for. First, precisely how much more infectious is omicron, relative to delta and its other ancestors? Second, does omicron cause worse illness and more death? And third, exactly how well does omicron evade the immune responses we’ve previously trained through vaccination or prior infection?
The makers of the two leading mRNA vaccines, BioNTech SE and Moderna Inc., are now looking into the third question and should have answers within about two weeks. Scientists everywhere are working on the other two, but their verdicts will take a bit longer. Hence our dilemma: What should we do right now, and in the coming weeks?
As I observe the reactions in my own social circles, the psychological responses break down roughly as they did in early 2020, when the pandemic first announced itself. Some people opt for denial. With their body language, gestures, jokes, travel and social plans, they’re signaling that, since we don’t know anything yet, there’s no point in worrying or adjusting. Let’s get in some living while we can.
Others are gyrating in mental doom loops of anxiety. They’re planning and replanning scenarios — cancel vacation plans? prepare for school closures and lockdowns? — and obsessively hitting the refresh button on their chosen news sites. Those media channels supply this additional demand by serving endless blather by pundits who — remember — still don’t have any more information than the rest of us.
Personality traits — a tendency toward neuroticism, for example — will influence where individuals fall on this spectrum. But evolution has made us all prone to hating uncertainty, just as it has spawned omicron. It did that by first making us unusually smart so that our brains can plan for something potentially bad lurking around the next corner and thereby help us survive. The saber-toothed tiger might be there or not, but we’ll do better on average if we assume the worst.
Unfortunately, human brains easily go into overdrive. We notice a lump in some part of our tissue and have it checked out. The doctor sends it to the lab. Now we have to wait, and during that time we imagine what could come back. And oh how creative our minds get at such times.
Research has shown that people actually tend to be calmer when anticipating certain pain — an electric shock, in this case — as opposed to a 50% chance of getting a shock. Other studies found that uncertainty about our job is more damaging to our health than actually losing it.
If you pretend that homo sapiens is rational, this doesn’t make sense. You can’t, at least not logically, be more afraid about a situation that could end badly or well than about one that’ll definitely turn out wrong. But if you accept that we are biological beings, it makes perfect sense. In our distant past, those of us who overestimated danger in the absence of knowledge had an evolutionary advantage over those who took life easy.
The problem is the excess. As our imaginations overshoot, many of us develop — here comes a fancy phrase — an Intolerance of Uncertainty, which can, in turn, lead to Generalized Anxiety Disorder. That’s always true, but even more so in a pandemic. Anxiety has increased, especially among teens and young adults; globally, the rates appear to have doubled, to more than one in five.
Anxiety, of course, is a disease in its own right. It sends us looking for escape in substances that are addictive and unhealthy, often even deadly. It slowly ruins our bodies and relationships. And it robs us of joy and optimism.
So now we’re confronting a new wave of uncertainty about what omicron has in store for us. What will it mean for our plans, education, career, relationships, health and life? And after omicron, there’ll be other Greek letters, all the way to omega. We’ll get so much worry practice, we’ll be pros.
So, why not use that practice? Maybe the best thing we can do against this particular anxiety — collectively and individually — is not to suppress it, but to label it and then laugh at it together. That might help us to switch off the blathering pundits on TV, and just wait for what the facts actually say — in their own sweet time, of course.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me." This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.