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People Are More Frightened of Coronavirus Than They Need
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If I was sitting in a restaurant and said in a loud voice that I had probably contracted coronavirus, many other customers might get up and leave. But I would be telling the literal truth: I have had a persistent sniffle for weeks and coronaviruses cause the common cold.

What I do not have is nCoV2019, the novel coronavirus from Wuhan that has so far killed over 600 people and infected 32,000 more. “Coronavirus” has swiftly joined AIDS, polio, syphilis, scarlet fever, bubonic plague and other devastating diseases, whose very names provoke, or used to provoke, a strong jolt of fear.

People are frightened because there is a good reason for their fear, though not as much as they think. The Wuhan variant of coronavirus has a death rate of about two per cent compared to 9.6 per cent for SARS and 34.4 per cent for MERS. But it is naïve to think that potential victims – all of us – will be reassured when we know that there is only a limited chance that we will die, because we were rather hoping not to die at all.

We do not normally think of ourselves as living in a great ocean of viruses and bacteria existing inside and outside our bodies, so the appearance of any virus that threatens our existence comes as a nasty shock. How many Americans know, for instance, that the US had a particularly severe flu epidemic in 2017/18 when 900,000 people were hospitalised and more than 80,000 died. Though between ten and 50 million Americans get the flu every year, this does not fuel public alarm about “a killer” illness sweeping through the country.

The present epidemic carries an extra charge of fear simply because the virus is new, initially unknown and the danger it poses, though limited so far, cannot be precisely calculated.

Governments and public health officials tend to be inept, for different reasons, in explaining the level of risk to people and quieting their understandable fears. They are caught in a vicious circle: if the authorities make gigantic efforts to control the epidemic, as in China, the very scale of their activities – 50 million people quarantined, hospitals built in a few days – are counterproductive because it convinces everybody that such great works must mean that they are facing terrible dangers.

Public health policy specialists speak of two different outbreaks: one of the coronavirus and the other of false and exaggerated news provoking an unnecessary panic. Clare Wenham, assistant professor of global health policy at the London School of Economics, and two of her colleagues write in the British Medical Journal that “there is a mismatch between the actual threat posed to the population by this newly emerging pathogen, and the perceived threat globally and nationally.” They say that “sensationalised panic and fear concerning the nCoV2019 outbreak” is the outcome of exaggerations by the media and misleading speculation by self-declared experts.

They criticise the World Health Organisation and Public Health England for failing to get a better grip on the news agenda, displacing “false facts” with authoritative and less alarmist reports. “Fear induced activity has supplanted the best public health activity,” Clare Denham told me, explaining that the evidence so far is that the risk of dying from the illness is low, the worst effected being the elderly and those suffering from other health conditions. She says that there were parallels between the over-reaction to the coronavirus and to BSE or “mad cow disease” over 20 years ago.

Public health experts blame the current hysteria over coronavirus on the media, and particularly social media, spreading rumours and myths. But I think that the problem is much older than that. Panic is an inescapable part of epidemics that cannot be dealt with simply by making authoritative facts more easily available.

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my own experiences in the Cork polio epidemic of 1956, long before there was social media or even television in Ireland. The country then was wholly dissimilar from China today, but human reactions to the outbreak were very much the same as was the mix of good and bad information about what was happening.

Many of the uncertainties that people feel today in reacting to an epidemic are the same as they were centuries ago: wondering whether to stay or to flee, openness to rumours, searching for scapegoats, blaming the authorities for hiding the truth, doing the wrong thing and doing it late. Action of some sort is demanded, though doctors say that it will do no good.

Daniel Defoe wrote a historical novel, A Journal of the Plague Year, that purports to be a contemporary account of the bubonic plague that killed between 75,000 to 100,000 Londoners in 1665 and 1666, though it was written 60 years later.

By the time Defoe was writing, newspapers were being blamed for spreading false facts, much as social media is now, and he claimed to be grateful that newspapers did not exist during the plague “to spread rumours and reports of things; and to improve them by the invention of men.”

But I doubt if the presence or absence of the print media made much difference. Wars and epidemics produce a voracious hunger for news that will include rumours, myths, lies as well as a great deal of truth. Potential victims want those in authority to show that they know what to do, even when there is nothing to be done. They do not want to hear that the epidemic may just have to burn itself out.

Often the best advice is the simplest. Defoe would probably have agreed with the advice of the British government for its citizens to leave China, as he says that “the best physic against the plague is to run away from it”, adding that inertia had kept thousands in London “whose carcasses went into the great pits by cartloads”.


Media coverage of all disasters lean towards saying that things are bad and likely to get worse. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is an old American newspaper saying, but holds true wherever there is a free press. Reporters will refer to the “deadly” or “killer” coronavirus, though 98 per cent of its victims do not die. The problem for governments is that they need to convey a sense of emergency and calm at the same time and this cannot be done.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: American Media, China, Coronavirus, Disease 
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  1. Nodwink says:

    It’s not so much the media (mainstream or social), it’s more the distrust of the Chinese government. A distrust that is well-founded.

    • Troll: Ghan-buri-Ghan
    • Replies: @Parbes
  2. I’m sure this isn’t your area of expertise, but the death rate is being calculated incorrectly here.
    You are calculating it from the percentage of those currently infected. 600 is roughly 2% of 32000. But the people dying are not the population that is being infected today, or even last week. It takes weeks for the novel Cornavirus to kill. The correct comparison is to the size of the population that was infected two or thee weeks ago. The infection total is exponential, roughly doubling every week. So the death rae for the population of two weeks ago is at least 8%. It is often remarked that exponential are not intuitive and few people reason well with them.
    This 2% is all over the internet, but that does not make it right. You are probably just repeating that number. You may want to present this to someone’s who mathematical reasoning your trust, if not your own.

  3. MEH 0910 says:

    People Are More Frightened of Coronavirus Than They Need

    I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my own experiences in the Cork polio epidemic of 1956, long before there was social media or even television in Ireland.

    My parents, Claud and Patricia Cockburn, were curiously unworried when they heard of an abnormal number of polio cases in Cork in the summer of 1956.


    In Brook Lodge we felt safe enough. There was a walled garden and four fields, about 35 acres in all. I rode around on an elderly white donkey called Jacky. I spent days happily, but ineffectively, trying to dam one of the streams with pebbles and mud. But my father was wrong to think that the house was isolated. The main contact with the outside world was himself. We lived well, but were permanently short of money. In the month after we returned to Ireland, he had to return to London several times to see Malcolm Muggeridge and Punch, hoping, he wrote later “to shore, and even perhaps establish on sound foundations, our always tottering financial structure”. He noticed on the train from Cork to Dublin, then the site of the nearest airport, that Dubliners would move down the other end of the buffet car to avoid anybody with a Cork accent.

    At about this time my father suddenly got a severe headache and a pricking feeling in his fingers. He did not realise its significance. For every person who gets polio in its crippling form, hundreds get the virus without serious effect. This immunises them, but while they have the disease they can carry it to others. A few days after my father’s last visit I had a headache and a sore throat. The local doctor was called. Within 24 hours he diagnosed polio.

  4. The flu has a “death rate” of something like 0.01% and even that’s a bit overstated. Some geezer with a failing heart dies while he’s got flu, and they write down “flu” for cause of death and not “heart disease.” nCov is definitely not the flu. Large numbers of perfectly healthy people in their primes are dying when the infection hits the third week, in the pneumonia stage.

  5. It’s irrelevant as to how many people the flu kills each year.

    The threat of coronavirus is in its potential. The flu doesn’t take down hospital staff:

    No one is even sure of the infection rate.

    • Disagree: John Chuckman
  6. I like Valerie Van Kerckhove’s, explanation of the PRC government’s behavior: “I actually find the response by the Chinese government to be extremely interesting. It seems like it’s overblowing the matter on purpose. Considering the low number of cases (compared to China’s population) and low death rates, it feels like the Chinese government is overblowing fears on purpose, with maps filled with dark areas and shutting down everything everywhere (and this is during China’s most important holiday season).

    “I suspect it’s practicing for when a Really serious disease breaks out, the sort with people dying like flies. So I find all this fuss quite interesting. We’ve been warned about a potential superbug outbreak for years, and now we can see how the response will look like. No doubt the Chinese government is busy taking notes on what it could have done better.

    “I don’t think most Westerners realize just how big Wuhan is, just how significant Chinese New Year is in terms of people moving around and just how many people go in and out of those wet markets every day. That’s like, tens of thousands of people leaving the wet markets, taking public transport then going home to expose all their visiting relatives, and all those people in turn going to all sorts of crowded areas too. With a high enough contagion rate, we’d easily be at 1 million infected. The fact that we haven’t reached such numbers means that this virus isn’t That bad.”

  7. The Wuhan variant of coronavirus has a death rate of about two per cent compared to 9.6 per cent for SARS and 34.4 per cent for MERS.

    Not quite, this is the current ‘mortality rate’ which is the percentage of people killed by the disease across the whole population.
    The ‘case fatality rate’ is currently somewhere between 10% and 15%. This is the chance of dying of the disease *if you contract it*.

    See for a discussion.

    • Replies: @jsinton
  8. jsinton says:

    Nothing to worry about. Everything is completely under control. No need to panic. Just half a billion Chinese on lockdown and hazmat suits with no end in sight. Nothing to see here. Just move along.

    • Replies: @Smithsonian_6
  9. jsinton says:

    Yeah. 10% to 15% fatality rate, with another 30% suffering debilitating outcomes and wish they were dead. You ever see somebody die or just survive pneumonia? Ain’t pretty.

  10. @jsinton

    Nothing to worry about. Everything is completely under control. No need to panic. Just half a billion Chinese on lockdown and hazmat suits with no end in sight.

    Exactly. Say what you like about the Chinese, but they never struck me as the sort of people who were prone to taking unnecessary precautions.

    • Replies: @jsinton
  11. And we should take the word of this clown who has been wrong about everything ever, because secretly his real expertise is epidemiology, right?

  12. The author unduely minimizes the potential for this virus to become a disease vector of great significance and potentially rivaling the mortality of the other viral plagues he cites BECAUSE IN HIS ARTICLE HE IS NOT TAKING INTO ACCOUNT THE NOW KNOWN VERY HIGH MUTABILITY OF THIS PARTICULAR VIRUS!!!

    David W. Walters, Ph.D. (graduate of Baylor College of Medicine)

  13. 50 million people quarantined, hospitals built in a few days

    They are not hospitals. They are internment camps.

    • Troll: d dan
  14. jsinton says:

    Yeah, official number of infected and dead, vs the scope and magnitude of the response… plus traditional Chinese massaging of any sort of official data. Bingo! They are hiding the scope and magnitude of the problem. We’ll know for sure as it spreads throughout the rest of Asia. Those numbers can’t be hidden.

  15. The whole thing is an overblown media circus and with the internet the press has the unlimited ability to flog the virus any which way to get the clicks and advertising. It is amusing to see on some websites virus articles that contradict each other.

    Its also entertaining to watch the stock market gyrations following every new revelation……….
    -300 dead from virus =market drops
    -virus spread not so bad says Dr Long Dong= markets rocket higher
    -Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls test positive for virus = market plunge

    Every photo on the internet shows dozens of Chinese wearing masks and so forth. The whole thing is a circus.

    I wrote in another post that the press beat the West Nile Virus to death in Canada. Long after the public had lost interest and moved onto the next drama one media outlet brayed “Is West Nile really over?” or something like that. Apparently a crow had been found in some remote area north west of Toronto and “tested positive” for the virus. No one asked how a dead bird could be found in remote forested area. Further why would anyone fly the bird out (is that an oxymoron pun or what?) to have it tested.

    Recently some college kids in Canada had a Corona beer party and a caption that read “Infect me”. Apparently the whole thing created a storm of protest. These days it seems folks dont have enough to worry about and too much free time on their hands. Everything is the end of the world or upsetting, racist or offensive to some individual or group. That is how stupid things have become.

    The whole virus situation is a colossal load of horse doo doo. Once Harry finishes his therapy and he and Megan separate the Coronavirus will become just another yawn as the ignorant masses move onto their next dose of mind numbing trash.

  16. Let’s assume that the Chinese government is lying about the virus. So, perhaps data from outside of China can be trusted. As of Feb 10, number of diagnosed cases outside of China–346. Number of deaths–one. Mortality rate-0.29% (around twice/three times the rate for a typical flu).

  17. Bartolo says:

    This silly “think of the flu”-argument confirms my general impression (over the years) the Cockburn has pretty poor judgement. His only saving grace is his antiwar stance, but for the rest, he is as silly as mainstream journalists.

  18. Parbes says:

    The Chinese government is a lot more trustworthy in most things than the U.S. government, which has turned lying, deception, opaqueness, and dishonest propaganda into an art form. Or, for that matter, any other of the Anglosphere governments. Your brainwashing and ideological prejudice against the Chinese government means NOTHING, you stupid bozo. Instead of bashing the Chinese government, idiots like you should be THANKFUL to them, since it’s due to their serious, epidemiologically sound, no-nonsense management of the epidemic that it has spread minimally outside of mainland China so far.

  19. “How many Americans know, for instance, that the US had a particularly severe flu epidemic in 2017/18 when 900,000 people were hospitalized and more than 80,000 died. ”

    That’s roughly 9% of those ill. Which still does not give us an accurate picture. Because we aren’t clear how many of those deaths might have been exacerbated by other issues of health or age or environment.

    interesting read:

    • Replies: @Philip Owen
  20. Anon[200] • Disclaimer says:

    Media hysteria definitely isn’t helping. If you read the “all disaster all the time” Zerohedge, the sky is literally falling and has been for the past 2 weeks. Not only are they constantly accusing China of fudging numbers without evidence, but they are constantly drumming up the fear mongering like “Coronavirus has HIV strain!” (according to some Indian researcher no one’s ever heard of) or “Coronavirus lives for 9 hours on surfaces!” There’s also daily attacks on the Chinese government. Punishing of local officials for failing to act sooner is derided as “scapegoating”. Never miss an opportunity to profit off a crisis. Zerohedge is doing their part to help Pence, Pompeo, Bannon and the rest of the neocons bring down the Chinese government using this crisis. So eager you might even think CIA has a hand in the origin of this virus.

    Bloomberg reported that China is “sacrificing” one province (Hubei) to save the world from Coronavirus. So far 97% of the deaths occurred inside that province, mostly from people who did not get proper care due to resource constraints. The only 2 deaths outside China so far (Philippines and HK) have been 2 Chinese travelers who were from Wuhan. Numbers coming out of China are always mind boggling, but bear in mind that even if it kills 100 million people in China, there are still 1.3 billion left, that’s 1 billion more than the US.

    Although I admire the Chinese government for their swift lockdown of that province, I wish they would do the responsible thing and shut down all outbound travels from China to the rest of the world. It would buy them a lot more good will. As it is, all persons of Chinese or even East Asian descent are loathed and feared the world over because of this virus.

    This crisis highlights the failure of globalization. The US and Canada are now inexerobly linked to China. There are simply too many Chinese here, there’s no way to stop them from bringing in this virus. Self-quarantine won’t work because these people have a tendency to lie and aren’t trustworthy. This serves as more argument for the US to completely decouple from China, the sooner the better. We need to produce more of what we consume, they need to consume more of what they produce.

    • Replies: @WHAT
  21. @EliteCommInc.

    It also happened in the UK on a scale large enough to reduce life expectancy. I ended up with heart problems myself.

  22. Cato says:

    The thing that sends up the strongest alarm signal is the reaction of the Chinese government. The objective for many years has been to maximize economic growth, and now, a dramatic change, they are shutting down workplaces and preventing people from doing anything useful. This is certain to trigger a recession in China, and probably also in the West, since China makes up about 17% of the global supply chain. Already, in Denmark, we see retailers warning that the summer clothing lines will be sparse and expensive.

  23. Patrick’s an expert virologist on the side

  24. WHAT says:

    ZH is literally a propaganda outlet for boomers. Stop reading it.

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