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The Chinese coronavirus is not the zombie apocalypse

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I'm not downplaying the seriousness of the new coronavirus that has spread around the world. People die and every death is a tragedy. But it is not the end of civilization as we know it - unlike some media outlets that run the risk of raising inappropriate alarms and panic. The headlines are ominous: "Wuhan is Ground Zero for Deadly Coronavirus." "The situation in China is serious."

One paper contained a picture of a Wuhan paramedic who burst into tears. Another, showing a bunch of corpses, was a fake.The daily mail quoted one researcher as saying, "I'm scared this time," warns an expert who helped fight SARS. Another scientist reportedly simulated a similar epidemic that he predicted would kill 65 million people. The headline didn't say it was a worst case scenario for a virus more deadly than SARS and easier to catch than the flu, an extremely unlikely scenario.

It is important to put the risk in perspective. The coronavirus appears no worse than the annual flu. The main difference is that there is no vaccine and it will likely take months to develop. It sounds even more daunting and scary because it's new, mysterious, and from a foreign land. Another contributing factor to the mystique is its presumed origin: a snake at an exotic animal market in Wuhan City that sold everything from cow heads to camels, foxes, badgers and a range of rats and reptiles.



It is terrifying to see the news from health officials in China wearing rubber gloves, surgical masks, goggles, and protective suits when treating patients. But these images need to be tempered with reality. Tens of thousands of Americans die from the influenza virus every year. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that around 40,000 citizens died from the flu in the last year alone. Two years ago, the death rate was 61,000, the worst in a decade. Most online sources will tell you that number was closer to 80,000, but the CDC later revised the number down. Even so, many of the original stories were never updated.

During the 2018-2019 flu season in the US, approximately 75% of all deaths were over 65 years of age. About 17% were between 50 and 64. These two categories account for 91% of all deaths. However, if you take a closer look, you will find that many of them have already had a number of medical conditions that resulted in weakened immune systems. Early reports from China confirm this: Most of the deceased were already in poor health. In a preliminary report, the median age at death was set at 75 years. As Michael Fumento notes, the virus will almost certainly hit China harder than developed Western countries. Not because we have better drugs, but because flu victims in these countries often die from secondary infections due to poor medical care, while in countries like the United States people rarely die from such infections. Catching coronavirus is not a death sentence. However, if you are elderly or have an underlying medical condition, you should take precautions. But that's the same advice doctors give for the flu every year.

All the signs indicate that this coronavirus is much milder than its two cousins, SARS and MERS. When Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) broke out in China in 2002, it was traced back to civets and had a death rate of around 10%. There were just over 8,000 cases in 17 countries. SARS is a variant of the new coronavirus. In 2012, another variant of the virus called Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) broke out in the Middle East. The virus had a much higher death rate - around 35% - but only affected 2,500 people and was much harder to catch than SARS. The transmission was associated with camel meat. The good news about the new virus is that while it appears to be easier to spread than its two predecessors, it is far less severe. This fits in with a general rule: the more deadly the virus, the harder it is to catch.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing the authorities is that the new coronavirus is relatively mild. With SARS and MERS, people got very sick and were easy to identify. With the new virus, you may have it and not even know it. Based on the early statistics, the death rate for coronavirus is around 3%, but the real number is likely much, much lower as many people are already infected but not sick enough to seek treatment at all. Will the virus spread around the world? Yes, because it already has. But will it spread en masse? That remains to be seen. But if it does, expect it to be no worse than the flu.



Beware of social media

In 1597, Francis Bacon wrote that "knowledge itself is power". The more we know about the coronavirus, the better. In 2020 we have more information at hand than Bacon could ever have imagined. The problem: Much of this information is not verified on the World Wide Web. While Bacon wasn't far from the dark ages and lived at a time when medicine was still in its infancy, it had some advantages that we didn't - it had no cell phone and there was no Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. He also didn't have the modern media to grapple with. Like sex, sell epidemics. While some news outlets were very responsible in their reporting, others were downright apocalyptic. Headlines routinely refer to the "deadly" coronavirus. News in brief: Viruses kill people. The key question, "How is this different from previous outbreaks?"

There is a real risk of social media spreading fear and confusion. Its tentacles can reach any corner of the world in no time. We live in what Marshall McLuhan called a "global village". Unfortunately, the new information age is full of misinformation, disinformation, rumors, fake news, political agendas, conspiracy theories, deep falsifications, and photoshopped images that can spread panic faster than any virus. Viral media can undermine the credibility of health officials and panic hoarding and shopping for bank runs and stock market sales. During the 2014 measles epidemic in Vietnam, there were online rumors and allegations that the government was lying to people about the severity of the outbreak, causing panic and making the epidemic so much harder to control.

How do we suppress panic? The antidote to fear and uncertainty is transparency and timely, accurate information from reliable sources. The problem with this strategy is that we live in an age of suspicion from the government and the media. In America, confidence in our elected officials has never been lower. There is mistrust in many parts of the world, as evidenced by the recent wave of anti-government protests and unrest in 2019 - from South America to Asia and from Europe to Africa. Many experts attribute this surge to social media and its ability to disseminate information. But social media is a double-edged sword. The internet is abundant with misinformation and falsehoods, especially when it comes to health. Some of these claims, like "vaccines are bad for you", have caused preventable diseases like measles and polio to re-emerge. Then there are confirmation errors. People tend to accept and accept assertions that support their pre-existing beliefs.

If Francis Bacon were still alive today, he would almost certainly be admiring our scientific advancement and the amount of information humankind has amassed. He would be equally at a loss about the number of people who are not using it and who seem more in tune with the beliefs of his century than with the science of the 21st century. In the words of Carl Sagan: "Wherever we have strong emotions, we can deceive ourselves." Humans' propensity to spread fear and misinformation through viral media can do more harm than the coronavirus itself.

References

Bartholomäus, Robert E. and Evans, Hilary (2004). Panic attacks: media manipulation & mass madness. Sutton Publishing, UK.

Bartholomäus, Robert E. (2001). Little Green Men, Meowing Nuns, and Headhunting Panic: A Study of Mass Psychogenic Diseases and Social Delusions. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company.

Collier, Roger (2018). Contains health myths in the age of viral misinformation. Canadian Medical Association Journal 190 (19): E578 (May 14).

Larsen, Heidi (2018). The greatest pandemic risk? Viral misinformation. nature 562 (7726) October 1.

2017-2018 Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical Visits, Hospital Admissions, and Deaths, and Estimated Influenza Illnesses, Medical Visits, Hospital Admissions, and Vaccination Avoided Deaths in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD). Accessed at: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden-averted/2017-2018.htm#anchor_1574361280230 (updated November 22, 2019).