The timing did little to assuage fear. Late Friday afternoon, Gov. Gary Herbert announced a state of emergency so Utah could prepare for a potential coronavirus outbreak. The declaration itself was a rather routine matter, one that would unlock federal dollars to bolster community action.

Hoping to reassure Utahns that a “state of emergency” only meant assuming a state of “readiness,” Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said, “While no one in Utah has yet tested positive for COVID-19, issuing this order now allows our state and communities to access additional funding and resources that will be instrumental in helping us prepare.”

First coronavirus case diagnosed in Utah hours after governor declares state of emergency

An hour later, health officials confirmed Utah’s first case of the illness.

But taking that as a sign Utah is in the throes of a health crisis would contribute more to paranoia than to thoughtful preparation. It would play to humanity’s instinct to overestimate the threat of an unrecognizable danger. As Richard Friedman, professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, wrote on Sunday for The New York Times, “We are not very rational when it comes to assessing risk.”

A better response is to serve one another.

Thanks to digital communications, the risk of a novel coronavirus pandemic is well known to news readers the world over — perhaps a little too well known. Experts can negotiate with the public that the chances of dying from COVID-19 are pitiful. They can argue that, as of Saturday morning, 17 Americans had died from the virus since the outbreak was detected late last year, whereas an estimated 100 Americans died in car accidents on Saturday alone. But statistics don’t conquer the emotional response of fear.

Combatting that requires an equally emotional reaction, but one that emphasizes human connectedness rather than the isolationist effects of anxiety. Altruism, argues Friedman, may be just the thing to shut out panic.

Selfishness pervades individual public health decisions, and the more people can look beyond themselves, the better the outcomes. Coming to work sick isn’t a show of fortitude as the American work ethic would have many believe; it’s a careless act that spreads germs. Stockpiling water won’t guard against contracting an illness, but it could deprive someone of an actual need.

Sacrifice and service, on the other hand, have the curious effect of benefiting both the individual and untold numbers of others. Reminding one another that each is a part of the greater human story promotes selfless decisions. Focusing on what’s best for others elevates the soul.

This is a collective problem; everyone needs the support and thoughtfulness of another.

Before clearing the shelf of cold medicine or attending a gathering undeterred by a cough, consider asking a simple question: “How can I love my neighbor today?” Connecting with one another through shared sacrifice would be a potent antidote for panic.