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Fear Factor

In view of the current global scenario, Achal Dhruva attempts to unravel the psyche of the business traveller headed to ‘unsafe destinations’

EFORE we embarked on the incentive trip to Bangkok, there was only a little anxiety. But once we boarded the Thai Airways flight to Bangkok, real fear set in. The entire crew and most passengers were wearing masks due to the SARS outbreak. We also asked for one.

But that was just a glimpse of what was to follow. After landing in Bangkok, we found the entire staff at the airport sporting masks. The huge airport was nearly empty. It was really eerie. I began to wonder if I had misjudged the situation and debated whether to take the next flight home.

Nimesh Desai, vice president, sales and marketing, Cello Furniture, was recalling the trauma that he went through while taking a group of 40 dealers and distributors, mostly from Uttar Pradesh, on a six-day incentive tour to Bangkok in second week of April.

“Hong Kong, China and Singapore had already registered a high number of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) cases and a few deaths were also reported. After gathering information from the Internet and other sources, I decided to go ahead with the trip because Thailand had not been in the grip of the epidemic. There were just seven or eight suspected cases of SARS reported. It was okay to deal with the anxiety before the trip but the airport was totally unexpected and unnerving. But once out of the airport, there was no sign of the epidemic. Life was normal and we had a wonderful holiday," stated Desai.

Fear, especially of the unknown, is the probably the biggest affliction of mankind. Experts believe that it is precisely this factor, which has resulted in extreme responses to the recent outbreak of SARS. Airlines suspending flights, a medical conference being cancelled in Canada, the first travel advisory based on a disease by the WHO (World Health Organisation) were some of the unprecedented measures for a new but spreading epidemic.

SARS, experts opine, is hardly the deadliest disease to have hit mankind. It is less infectious than influenza and, with a four per cent mortality rate, not even close to being as deadly as HIV/AIDS which kills all its victims or malaria which kills up to a million people every year, mostly children. “SARS is new and that scares people. Whether it is an over-reaction depends on whether the threat is real and we don’t know that yet. The characteristic at work here is, if it is new, it is always scarier,” claims David Ropeik of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis.

Ropeik believes that tourists who abandoned plans to visit China and residents who fled affected apartment blocks because of the presence of a SARS case are acting on primordial instincts, not logic. “It is steeped more in emotion than in fact. When a threat is new to you, the safest thing is to get out of the way and then you’ll live. The more you don’t know, the more you treat it as a threat and the better you survive," he says.

The same sentiment underlined the mass fear psychosis of flying in the United States following the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre. The country had never witnessed an attack of such magnitude. Also images of the airplanes colliding into World Trade Centre and the collapse of the twin towers captured graphically on camera and televised continuously only fuelled the fear.

Anxiety and fear, according to Dr Harish Shetty, psychologist, are the two unescapable by-products of an impending trip to a troubled zone. For business travellers ‘global village’ is no longer a concept but a reality. Satellite communications, supersonic jets, computers and other technological advances have made it possible to have business interests in far flung corners of the world. And technology, while making travel faster and more comfortable, has also ensured that the ‘business class’ is kept up-to-date on all minor and major events occurring worldwide. This particular benefit can however be a ‘double edged sword.’ ‘Well informed might be well armed’ for a business traveller, but it also increases their anxiety and stress levels.

Also, like their ancient brethren, traders who trekked through treacherous mountain passes and sailed the high seas to make the barter, modern day business and corporate bigwigs have to travel to countries ripped apart by civil unrest, devastated by natural calamities and ravaged by epidemics.

Travelling to such ‘troubled spots’ is not only fraught with danger but also has a psychological impact on the mind of the business traveller. In Dr Shetty’s opinion, anxiety and panic attacks can lead to a host of psychosomatic disorders like high blood pressure, diabetes and in extreme cases, cardiovascular problems.

“The more you are aware of a risk, the more you worry about it. That is why no one panics when an especially bad influenza epidemic kills 500,000 people around the world in one year. The reason we are not afraid of flu is we are not thinking about it,” says Ropeik explaining how the enormous media attention given to SARS has fuelled fear.

Not just SARS, when confronted with anything unexpected and unknown, people tend to overreact which sometimes can be risky. For instance, during the anthrax attacks in the United States in October 2001, thousands of people who were nowhere near an anthrax-laced letter took antibiotics as a precaution. “We want to have a sense of control over our destinies. That is why people rushed to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting when the US Homeland Security Department warned about the possibility of a chemical attack,” says Ropeik.

Coping with anxiety and fear is fairly simple, according to Dr Shetty (see box). On the flip side, he feels that foolish bravado or under-reaction can be equally dangerous. Business travellers, because they travel extensively, may tend to take things lightly compared to other travellers and at times overlook simple precautions. A typical under reaction is exemplified in the complaint of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that one-third of Americans who should get flu shots every year, do not, even though influenza kills 36,000 Americans each year.

“On the flight to Bangkok there were quite a few among the group who felt that foreigners, as usual, were overreacting and did not call for a mask. In general I feel that Indian business travellers are more prone to under-reacting as they are exposed to a whole baggage of hazards while travelling within the country,” says Desai.

In his opinion, it is the immediate family of the traveller who overreact. He recounts, “When I announced my trip, my family and in-laws went ballistic. Their anxiety levels were higher than mine. They gave me a whole list of dos and don’ts which included ‘don’t consume dairy products’, ‘don’t eat meat’, ‘drink only boiled water’, etc ."

Desai diligently followed most of the instructions. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

In conclusion, though the business traveller is always face to face with an element of risk, as Desai puts it, “When you got to go, you got to go.”

12 Ways To Beat Fear
  • Weigh the pros and cons of visiting a troubled spot thoroughly.
  • It is very important not to over react.
  • Collect accurate information about the issue or problem.
  • Follow all prescribed norms and safety guidelines.
  • Share your apprehension openly with people you trust or regard as your mentors. This will help in easing stress levels without being labelled as a ‘chicken.’
  • Share information and your feelings about the trip with the family.
  • Indulge in self talk and tell yourself these things happen and no place is free of natural calamities.
  • Put down your first reactions, feelings about the issue and analyse the same. This will not only help understand your fears and apprehensions better, but also help you deal with them.
  • Travel in groups or pairs as this will help ease anxiety.
  • Pranayam or some sort of meditation during the trip will help you stay calm and keep down the stress levels.
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