Nothing to fear but fear itself . . . (Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1933)

Maybe. Unless the threat causing fear of danger, pain, or harm is tangible.

Fear is a powerful emotion. We all surely experience fear at some point in our lives. Some of that fear we are able to rationalise because we understand the threat (or at least the risk). I guess it rarely gets to the level where we feel paralysed, but as our anxiety levels rise, then our ability to respond decreases.

While we may be aware of a potential threat, when or where it impacts cannot often be predicted with certainty. Whatever it may be, we can all recall experiences that were unpleasant, dangerous even, causing our anxiety level to rise. And there is so many things in our surroundings beyond our control that do precisely this.

Let’s begin with war or civil conflict. Thankfully, I have not personally experienced war or civil conflict first hand. I have not dreaded being attacked, or cowered in fear of being bombed like refugees today in the Yemen or Syria, for instance. And regrettably in so many continuing conflicts around the world.

But I have experienced the fear of the threat of war. Take October 1962, for example. During the Cuban Missile Crisis the world came within a hair’s breadth of nuclear war between the USA and USSR. The behavior of some political leaders today (no names no packdrill) does not inspire confidence that careless words and actions won’t lead us down a similar road to conflict. In fact, one particular head of state seems hell bent on confronting friends and foes alike.

I was in high school back in October 1962, almost 14 years old. I remember quite clearly the approaching 3 pm GMT deadline on that fateful October day (the 25th?), and wondering whether any of us would be alive beyond the end of the day. I was certainly anxious.

In terms of geological threats, I lived on the slopes of two volcanoes, both dormant (or at least thought to be dormant).

In Costa Rica, the Turrialba Volcano towers more than 3300 m over the town of Turrialba where I lived for almost five years from April 1976 until November 1980. I even once went to the summit of the volcano. There were no signs of life, just perhaps a little steam emitted on one side of the crater. In the last decade however, it has become explosively active, threatening surrounding towns.

In quieter times, the Turrialba Volcano from my garden at CATIE in Turrialba.

In the Philippines, IRRI Staff Housing was built on the lower slopes of Mt Makiling. Although considered dormant, there is geothermal activity locally, and just 20km or so due west lies the dangerous Taal Volcano, which became active earlier this year; it has since subsided.

Mt Makiling overlooks the experimental fields at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

However, I’ve never been threatened directly by volcanoes, although on a couple of occasions serious volcanic eruptions almost disrupted my travel plans.

Just before I was due to join IRRI on 1 July 1991, Mt Pinatubo blew its stack in mid-June, closing Manila airport some 54 miles southeast of the volcano. By the beginning of July, the volcano’s activity had subsided sufficiently for the airport to be reopened, and life began to return to normal for most Filipinos. But not those close to the volcano who had seen their livelihoods destroyed. This eruption was totally unexpected. Pinatubo was covered in dense forests, heavily eroded, showing no signs of having erupted for centuries if not millennia. This was one of the most powerful eruptions in the 20th century.

In April 2010, a couple of weeks before I was due to retire from IRRI, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted in Iceland, and its ash cloud shut down air travel over Europe for almost a week. My concern was whether Steph and I would be able to return to the UK.

Now earthquakes are a different matter. In a country like Peru, where Steph and I lived from July 1973 until April 1976, there can be no doubt that earthquakes happen frequently, many quite minor but, on occasion, some major ones as well. It’s one thing to appreciate that Peru is tectonically active, it’s quite another to know when earthquakes might hit. It’s the unpredictability, the uncertainty that increases one’s anxiety.

And when a major quake does hit, such as we experienced in October 1974 (over 8 on the Richter Scale, and lasting over two minutes) I can only describe my reaction as fear! There were few deaths. Most people, in Lima at least, were at work, in buildings that had been constructed to withstand such movements. Unlike the May 1970 disaster in central Peru when more than 70,000 people died, as the result of a massive landslide caused by the earthquake.

Fear, yes. Fear about aftershocks and how bad they will be. We lived on the 12th floor of an apartment building then. And there were some pretty serious aftershocks. I found myself in a continuous state of anxious anticipation. Even today I’m highly sensitive to any movement that even hints of an earth tremor. My hair started to turn grey around that time as well.

What about weather events? Here in the UK we’ve had some pretty nasty winter storms over the past two winters. I hate the sound of the wind howling around the rafters, sudden gusts that sound (and feel) as if they are going to rip the roof off. But these UK storms are nothing in comparison to the tornadoes that break out across parts of the USA, causing devastation as they touch down. I’ve only ever seen minor twisters, and hope never to find myself in the path of a full bloodied tornado. Or a hurricane for that matter, although we came close to Hurricane Dorian last September on the coast of New Jersey as we travelled around the eastern seaboard of the USA.

In the Philippines, however, I have lived through many typhoons, some mega-typhoons, that came right over the top of Los Baños, south of Manila, where we lived at IRRI. Like Typhoon Xangsane (or Milenyo as it was named in the Philippines) in September 2006. Yes, it’s really frightening to hear and feel winds of 200kph batter your house, meanwhile seemingly dump bathfuls of water every second on the roof. It caused considerable damage at IRRI Staff Housing. And as with many typhoons, it’s often not the damage caused by the high winds that are the main problem (serious as they are), but the impressive and damaging amounts of rain that a typhoon can dump on an area, especially if it’s a slow-moving system.

But hurricanes and typhoons are predictable in one sense. They can be tracked before they make landfall, and precautions set in train beforehand to evacuate vulnerable communities if necessary (and possible). Although, as I have seen too often I’m afraid, this time advantage is not always exploited.

And so it goes with the current Covid-19 pandemic. Our government here in the UK, and perhaps even more so in the USA, culpably failed to take heed of what was happening elsewhere in the world. They lost valuable time, weeks even, in preparing for the worst that this nasty little virus could throw at us.

Yes, this pandemic makes me fearful. While my wife and I have not been affected physically, life has changed. For the time-being at least. It looks like lockdown will be here for at least another three weeks, if not longer. And I cannot see how we can return to a ‘new normal’ until a Covid-19 vaccine affords the necessary protection that we just don’t have right now.

My anxiety levels on some days have been sky high. I’ve had days of quite deep depression. We know the virus is there. We can’t see it. We don’t know if any persons standing next to us, albeit at a social distance of at least 2m, has the virus but is not showing any symptoms. We are fearful because we have seen just how infectious the pathogen is, and how sick people can become, with a very high mortality rate among the old (especially if they have underlying health issues). Steph and I are both in our seventies.

But the fear is not just about health. It’s also fear of financial loss, of lives blighted for a generation. Not just us. We have fewer years remaining to us. But our daughters and their families.

This Covid-19 pandemic is the first experienced by most people worldwide. Perhaps there hasn’t been a threat like this since the ‘Spanish flu’ pandemic of 1918. That’s not to downplay the SARS, MERS, and ebola epidemics of recent years. Or the ongoing fight against tuberculosis, the resurgence of measles because of the actions of anti-vaxxers, and many other health problems confronting us today. It’s just that Covid-19 is caused by a novel pathogen, for humans at least. That’s the frightening aspect, and until we have that protection, many of us will continue to experience mental health problems even if we do not contract the virus as such.

Keep safe everyone.


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