While I write this article regarding the corona virus, the Dow Jones stock index is down nearly 1,000 points. Clearly, panic is upon us. If ever there was a time to say, “Calm down,” this is it.
We did not panic when 80,000 deaths in the U.S. were attributed to the flu in the 2018-2019 season by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This was significantly above the usual number of around 50,000 to 60,000 and represents over a 10% mortality rate. The corona virus seems to have about a 3% mortality rate, according to both the CDC and the Lancet, the highly respected British medical journal. See references of sources of statistics at the end of the article.
Why the tendency to panic now?
Panic is based in fear, and fear is enhanced by the lack of a vaccine against the corona virus, unlike with the flu, against which we have protection. The difference appears to be exaggerated. Flu vaccines do not provide immunity against all strains that are possible threats, and those against which they do provide protection are constantly mutating. These are the reasons we are cautioned that flu vaccines are only about 40% to 60% effective.
While news media announce a single death from the corona virus in France, they omit the context that the worldwide death toll every year from a normal flu season is between 300,000 and 600,000.
Most so-called flu deaths are strictly speaking deaths from pneumonia or severely compromised immune systems, due to severe heart conditions, diabetes, etc., particularly among the elderly. If you are reasonably healthy and are fortunate to live in a country where antibiotics are easily accessible and you contract the corona virus, you will undoubtedly feel quite miserable for some period of time, but otherwise you will very likely end up being just fine. In other words, just like with the flu.
News coverage of the corona virus reminds me of the news media’s obsession with private airplane accidents. Did you know that this last weekend a small plane crashed in Hawaii, killing both people on board? The story was carried on the national television news, although there was no mention that the deceased were in any way likely known by the public at large, either in that state or the U.S. An awful thing no doubt, but last year in the U.S., nearly 37,000 people died in automobile crashes. In Hawaii, by the way, 117 people were killed in auto crashes. This averages more than two per week, and yet no recent tragedies on Hawaii’s roads were mentioned in the weekend news. Perhaps the fatal plane crash is thought to merit our attention because it is so relatively rare and considered somehow more spectacular.
Certainly, even if the corona virus is no more of a threat than the flu, we do not want the usual flu numbers to be doubled by the addition of comparable corona virus casualties. Reasonable caution and control is in order, but panic is not. Antibiotics should be made available to poorer countries that may face shortages, and special precautions are in order for those with weak immune systems, particularly the very young and the very old. Overall casualties can be reduced by everyone getting a flu shot, unless medical advice says otherwise. Sick employees should be required to stay home from work.
Yet we are not dealing with Ebola, nor are we in the position of 14th century Europeans facing the black plague and the annihilation of 30% to 50% of their populations. Over reaction creates its own dangers, since recessions and job losses bring their own human costs as trade and travel contract. (It also creates its own follies: there are reports that thousands of people have Googled to see if Corona Beer is still safe to consume!)
Peace and prosperity have been hard won. Each of us has a role to play in seeing that their continuation and further growth are not jeopardized by the spread of panic brought about by fixation on the unusual and spectacular.