“The little kid sneezed on me. I can’t be sure but I think he was Chinese. Oh shit.”
I overheard this said at a cafe at Kuala Lumpur airport. I was on my way to Ho Chi Minh City days after the Chinese government had imposed a travel ban from Wuhan, the source of the coronavirus outbreak.
It was unlikely that the little kid who sneezed on this person was from Wuhan or was infected with the coronavirus.
Yet this gentleman couldn’t help but worry. From his frantic voice, it seems he’ll have a stressful few weeks looking for symptoms of the coronavirus.
This intrepid traveller isn’t alone. The world is currently gripped with panic at the potential of a coronavirus pandemic.
It begs the question:
Is fear of a coronavirus pandemic justified?
You’re at more risk from the common flu
On 31st January, 2020, 170 people are known to have died from the Wuhan coronavirus with 8,246 people diagnosed.
Over 99.9% of the coronavirus cases are in China, with handfuls of cases reported elsewhere.
The Wuhan coronavirus appears to be deadly. But so is almost every other virus we know about.
To put this into context, at the time of writing, no-one outside China has died from the virus. But many people have died from the common flu.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, influenza has resulted in between 9 million and 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 and 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 and 61,000 deaths in the United States annually since 2010.
Taking the lower numbers, we can estimate that during January 2020, 775,000 were afflicted with influenza in the United States. Of those people, about 11,500 people were hospitalized and 1,000 people died.
If you’re reading this outside China, you’ve got more chance of dying from the common flu than the coronavirus.
The common cold doesn’t cause mass hysteria
You would expect the impact of the common cold to cause mass hysteria when compared with the impact of the coronavirus.
Yet the estimated 12,000 yearly deaths from the common cold in the United States don’t have anywhere near the same impact.
Some people will say that the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is potentially more damaging because it’s new. We don’t have a vaccine against it and our immune systems are less equipped to deal with it.
The closest comparison to the coronavirus outbreak is therefore the SARS outbreak from 2003.
At the time, Chinese health officials warned that it could mutate further and become more deadly. Yet viruses usually mutate to become less deadly, preserving the host environment.
The fact is that there was a grand total of 8,098 cases of SARS, of whom 774 people died. Then the disease disappeared. The United States had 75 cases and 0 deaths.
Fear spreads very easily
Korean-American physician Dr. Joon Yun suggested there’s an even more widespread threat emerging than the coronavirus: coronavirus fear.
He predicts that the number of people afflicted with coronavirus fear has surpassed 100 million in the United States alone. Coronavirus fear is “highly contagious, and even a brief exposure to someone afflicted can produce the condition.”
Hospitals have been overwhelmed by people who think they’re coming down with it (when it fact they have a normal case of the flu, of a common cold) and dedicated hotlines are being bombarded with concerned calls. We know that putting healthcare services under more pressure than usual is dangerous, diverting vital care away from others in need.
Beyond the risk of overwhelming healthcare providers, there are concerns that the global economy is being impacted with this wave of fear.
Stocks around the world have become unstable, as market buyers face uncertainty about what will happen next. China is the second largest economy in the world right now. When it suffers, the ripples are felt by all of us.
In 2003, the SARS epidemic caused a recession across Asia that affected millions of lives. Factories were shut down, some of them permanently. Schools were closed and travel halted. The economic fallout was estimated at around $33 billion.
Racism against Chinese is increasing
Aside from the economic costs of coronavirus fear, there’s another unfortunate consequence: racism against Chinese. People in countries including South Korea, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and Canada are reporting the spread of anti-Chinese racism.
Sam Phan, a student at the University of Manchester, wrote in the Guardian: “This week, my ethnicity has made me feel like I was part of a threatening and diseased mass. To see me as someone who carries the virus just because of my race is, well, just racist.”
George Osborne is a British newspaper editor and shared the following tweet:
— George Osborne (@George_Osborne) January 24, 2020
Andrew Kurjata, a journalist with CBC Radio in Canada, shared the following:
An online petition signed by parents in one district in Ontario, Canada, asked the school directors to request parents whose children have recently returned from China “to stay at home and keep isolated for a minimum of 17 days for the purpose of self-quarantine.”
Helen Chan, a university student in Australia, is stranded in her hometown of Wuhan and unable to return to her studies. On Facebook, share shared a post that has since gone viral, asking for people to show compassion for the brave doctors and nurses working so hard to contain the virus:
“Doctors and nurses are working around the clock, many of them have not gone home in weeks; healthcare professionals across China are flying voluntarily to Wuhan to help; factory workers have resumed work due to the shortage of masks and protective suits; 3M and other companies are donating masks too; hotels across Wuhan have offered free accomodation to healthcare professionals whose home are too far away; chain convenient stores are providing free hot meals to hospitals and workers; delivery man have to give up their holidays to deliver food to families because we can’t leave our homes; construction workers are working around the clock to build new hospitals… do all these people working tireless to save lives deserve to get affected and die too??? Those selfish exotic animal traders have taken away precious family time from all these people who are literally putting their lives in danger to help others, and yet on the Internet, these unsung heroes are being lumped together with them, criticised condemned and humiliated. It’s really heartbreaking. Those people don’t deserve any of it.”
History repeats itself
If we take a quick look at history, we can see that coronavirus fear is nothing new.
Ebola, H1N1 swine flu, SARS, and many other epidemics in recent history have all caused intense fear and socioeconomic instability as a result of media noise. The coronavirus will cause more deaths. But so will many other viruses and health conditions.
It’s unlikely going to be the beginning of a viral apocalypse.
Dr. Joon Yun says:
“What we do know is this. Flu is a protean disease that can appear both benign and plague-like. This dualism endows it unusual propensity to stoke and spread fear by subverting human herd instincts, especially in the social media era when the vitality of fear far exceeds the vitality of the virus itself.”
This, I think, highlights two key points we need to bear in mind.
First, you’re unlikely to be infected with the coronavirus.
Second, you’re probably already infected with the fear of coronavirus.
Media outlets and social media are allowing us to spread fear, compare symptoms and convince ourselves we’re in a doomsday scenario. Fear drives clicks more than anything and publishers have little incentive to share a balanced perspective based in reality.
This is quite beautifully illustrated by the sudden spike in Google searched for the phrase “corona beer virus” in the last 48 hours, prompting US media to publish articles stating things like “the coronavirus and Corona beer are not at all related.” People had been talking across social media and personal blogs about the possibility that if they’d recently drunk a Corona, they might be at risk of coming down with the virus.
*note: if you found this article because you were asking Google if you’d get the coronavirus from a beer, I’m pleased to tell you that you’re absolutely fine. Slice up a lime and have another.
Ultimately, the key point is this:
Keep calm. Don’t panic. Take a break from the news if it’s making you feel anxious. If you’re panicking every time you sniff or sneeze, take some time out and let your body heal the way it naturally does the other times you may have a cold.
No single one of us can control the course of a media frenzy on our own—but if we all read the news with a bit more discernment, together we can slow the spread of the fear of coronavirus.