Taming the COVID-19 Boogeyman

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Our nearly 3 year old grandson recently came running down the stairs at our house. He had been playing in an upstairs bedroom that belonged to one of our sons – a world of wonder with old toys, books, and various other artifacts that would intrigue any young boy. He was breathless as he fearfully described the big spider he found in the room.

As I was not home, the search and destroy mission fell upon my wife and, together, they slowly returned upstairs – Cooper walking behind Sally who now had a slipper in hand to fend off the threat. As they walked into the room, he pointed to a stack of books on the floor and cried “Over there Nanny!”

They edged closer and Sally pushed a book over trying to flush the little monster out. Suddenly, she jumped as she saw the hand-sized shadow emerge across the top of the book. The spider’s frightful details came into focus, long, hairy legs, creepy eyes, and a fat black abdomen. She exhaled a sigh of relief as she realized it was a lifelike model of a tarantula within a book designed to show the reader the inner workings of the large spider.

Since then, spiders come up frequently with little Cooper. Whenever he is uncertain, tired, or frightened, he seems to come across another spider – even when he probably didn’t. That large, scary image is very real to him and captures his sense of the frightening and unseen scariness that our big world can hold. For Cooper, that spider lurks in hidden places, ready to jump out when he least expects it.

Boggart for Muggles

In 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, there is a scene in which the hero and his classmates are learning about a creature called a boggart. As the professor releases the unseen monster from a sealed chest, they soon learn that the boggart’s mode of attack is to take on the form of the thing the viewer most fears – it becomes the boogeyman of his or her nightmares. For Harry’s friend, Ron, it is a giant spider.

COVID-19 has become 2020’s boggart for muggles around the world. The virus and its associated disease is a modern-day boogeyman lurking around every corner, waiting to spring on us in an errant exhale, sneeze, or stealthy transmission in a now dangerous handshake. A recent walk through a Kroger looked like a scene from a Hollywood movie as masked shoppers made their way through a crowded store avoiding physical contact and averting their eyes should it be possible that eye contact too might transfer the dreaded disease.

Charles Baudelaire once said that “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn’t exist.” The 2020 version of Baudelaire’s quote would read “The greatest trick COVID-19 ever pulled was convincing the world that it is the Devil.”

The terrible threat of COVID-19 has flattened world economies, separated loved ones, killed people, made others sick, passed silently among us, and created a sense of fear and uncertainty that few of us have ever encountered. On the surface, the disease has appropriately earned its dangerous reputation as Johns Hopkins reports a 5.7% mortality rate for the U.S.

The Problem With Numbers

The problem with this number (and any number) is that it can be quite misleading without broader context. The Johns Hopkins number above is a case fatality rate based on deaths divided by confirmed cases. The death rate drops quickly as more people are tested and evidence emerges that many more have been exposed to the virus and generated antibodies over the last few months. As the prevalence of the disease is shown to be greater, the death rate will continue to drop.

In addition, COVID-19-like illness has become a broad catch-all for death reporting making it difficult to know for sure how many deaths are truly COVID-19 triggered. For example, how are we tracking COVID-19 relative to the 647,000 people who die from heart disease every year? If I have heart disease and am determined to have had COVID-19 when I pass, did I die of COVID-19 or was it my heart disease? Right now, the categorization is very broad, including “COVID-19-like” illness. I know someone who recently was diagnosed via telemedicine as “presumed COVID-19” positive without ever having been tested. How do you think that shows up in the data? How much of our death data reflects similar presumptions?

COVID-19 has attached itself to our collective conscious as the boogeyman of our time. All of us have asked ourselves “Did I have COVID-19 in January or February when I had a dry cough and felt yucky for 2 weeks?” We will be sorting the realities for months or years. Meanwhile, “social distancing” has become the rallying cry of our fight against COVID-19; a strategy that does not defeat the disease but has become a false shield against something from which we can’t hide.


Just look around: everyone you know is “sneaking” visits with friends or loved ones, delivery people are jumping between our homes and offices depositing goods and exhaled air like bees pollinating in spring, food workers are handling our fresh food and packaged food equally, and the list of “essential” businesses is still long enough to keep a chunk of the working population in steady contact with one another. Unless you hermetically seal yourself somewhere very remote, you are not insulated from the virus.

Now that the COVID-19 boogeyman has become part of our new reality, there is no unseating it. In the days and months ahead, it will be associated with other mysterious illnesses that emerge, counted in many deaths that were happening regardless, continue to make people slow to find some sense of normalcy, further split our country on how best to move forward, and wreak untold havoc on our sense of security. Like Cooper and the spider, we will see COVID-19 lurking in every dark corner, planting its seeds of fear across all uncertainties.

Reason and Faith

So, what do we do to tame the COVID-19 boogeyman? I believe it requires reason and faith. First of all, think rationally about the guidance we are given from the government. The blunt instruments they are using are broad brush approaches to population health management. Our government is managing to the least common denominator of our population: those most at risk. Where do you fit in that calculation? Act accordingly like you would for any potentially threatening illness. In that regard, nothing has changed.

Second, look at the information logically and rationally. If you want to track numbers, look at various metrics and think critically about how they are tracked, measured, and reported. Intermittent spikes are likely caused by delays in the reporting of data – remember, there is not one master data feed that is instantly updating the dashboards. Then, question the summaries. Does the data really indicate the conclusions drawn?

Thirdly, stay informed but give yourself room to breath and process. Look for different sources. Stay away from eyeball-grabbing headlines. Find critical analyses that give different perspectives. You will feel better with good information and by steering clear of dramatic leaps of prognosticating. Discern for yourself. Does the information make sense or is it driving an emotional reaction? Step away and clear your head with activity. Repeat.

Finally, have faith. Faith that we will be ok. Faith in the ability of smart people to find answers. Faith in your ability to navigate the uncertainties. Faith that there is a middleground in our approach. Faith in your common sense. Faith that there is purpose in the challenges before us. Faith that you can thrive in spite of the difficulties. Faith that we don’t have to control or answer everything in order to move forward.

When you think of the boogeymen of your youth, what brought you peace? When you talk to those you love about the COVID-19 boggart, how do you allay their fears? Reason and faith. Pass it on.

  • Jerry Berry

    Nice piece Phillip, whole heartedly agree. I loved the analogy absolutely perfect.

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