A major outbreak of novel, fatal epidemic disease can quickly be followed… by plagues of fear, panic, suspicion and stigma. Most epidemics, going back to the medieval plagues, exhibit a similar pattern. So do more recent ones, from Sars to Ebola to the current coronavirus outbreak.
The World Health Organization declared the coronavirus a global emergency. Whether the drastic steps being taken to contain it are proportionate or an over-reaction are a matter of debate. But responses to pandemics are rarely shaped by medical needs alone.
A new threat always seems more menacing than one with which we are familiar with. So far, about 55 thousand people have died from the coronavirus, though that figure will undoubtedly rise. The Sars pandemic in 2002-03, which went unchecked for many months because of the refusal of the Chinese authorities to acknowledge its existence, cost 774 lives. Ordinary seasonal flu leads to about 650 thousand deaths every year globally according to World Health Organization. Yet we barely take notice of flu but feel imperilled by new diseases.
There are medical reasons for this. There is no vaccine yet for the coronavirus. The mortality rate may be higher, though, so far, there is little evidence of that.
But it’s not just medical factors that are at play here. New diseases seem also to expose the existential fragility of human societies. Responses to epidemics are often attempts by the authorities to show that they are in control, and to shape the public narrative.
Consider the decision by the Chinese authorities to lock down the city of Wuhan, the source of the coronavirus. The Chinese response has been almost the opposite of the ideal scenario. Initially slow to acknowledge the spread of the virus then suddenly Beijing used the full force of the authoritarian state to impose a quarantine larger than any seen before.
In 2009, the H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic caused up to 550,000 deaths and, like the coronavirus, was declared a global health emergency. In Mexico, where the virus was first detected, the government shut schools and businesses, banned public gatherings and imposed quarantines. These moves helped limit new cases of H1N1, but were abandoned after 18 days, partly because of the huge social and economic costs they imposed. Although between 4,000 and 12,000 died from the outbreak in Mexico, the cost of preventing it spreading further was seen as greater than the cost wreaked by the virus itself.
When some west African states imposed cordons to seal off large areas during the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic, tens of thousands were left starving, leading to mass violence. Quarantines have their place in the medical toolkit, but demonstrating you’re in control may not be the best way of tackling an epidemic.
The authorities want to transmit other messages. There is no medical reason for Australia to quarantine its nationals returning from Wuhan on Christmas Island, 2,000 miles from the mainland. But it is making a point.
We should take seriously the health risk posed by the coronavirus. We should be equally alert to the way misguided responses can generate plagues of fear, panic and suspicion.
Mainstream media probably is mostly to blame for this over indulgence of fear being pressed into our heads.
Like many things, these TV and newspaper reporters are so desperate for headlines, ratings and customers that they jump on anything that moves, whether it’s serious or not, and they run with it. And, they’re running with this without checking into the bowels of the disease.
So … It’s here. It’s new. It’s out of control. We don’t have a cure. So let’s create panic. That is the 180-degree wrong way to look at it – or at anything for that matter.
Now, this isn’t to say there is no reason for concern. Coronavirus has been proven to be a deadly disease, especially in the older and those with underlying health conditions. Because of that, we do need to pay close attention to what’s happening and to take every precaution.
But, the good old regular flu has and will hit us harder than this thing ever will. The statistics back that up.
The worst thing any of us can do is jump on this rapidly growing panic bandwagon and let it continue to run out of control until it crashes.The best thing we can do is stay calm and follow the well documented and basic procedures for a healthy existence – plenty of hand-washing, covering the face when coughing or sneezing and going and staying home when symptoms surface.
Nazrul Hoque – 01 April 2020