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 1000 people and infected 42,000 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.