Humans are dreadful at assessing risks. We ignore the familiar dangers of day-to-day living — like driving on the highways — but obsess over rare and distant threats to our well-being — such as the current boogeyman, the coronavirus outbreak in China, which has killed more than 150 people in China and sickened more than 7,700.
A young relative asked me Wednesday if I thought she should wear a face mask to guard against the coronavirus. I told her she ought to worry about influenza instead. Get vaccinated, wash your hands often, don’t put your fingers in your eyes, nose or mouth, and stay away from people who are coughing, I said.
And a face mask gives people an exaggerated sense of safety, I told her. They are helpful only in limited situations, such as when you are stuck inside with lots of people.
We certainly don’t need another disease that kills on the same scale as the flu.
Fortunately, that advice about basic hygiene applies whether you’re worried about catching the flu, the common cold or the coronavirus. Unfortunately, there is no vaccine against this coronavirus, and there won’t be soon enough to have any impact in this year’s outbreak.
For most Americans, the risk of getting sick or dying from influenza is much greater than the risk from coronavirus. Already during this flu season, about 15 million Americans have been infected and more than 8,000 have died. Worldwide, flu kills about 650,000 people every year.
“When we think about the relative danger of this new coronavirus and influenza, there’s just no comparison,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and health policy at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told Kaiser Health News. “Coronavirus will be a blip on the horizon in comparison. The risk is trivial.”
And yet, there is no breathless news coverage of the seasonal flu. There’s no sense of urgency or panic. No cities are quarantined. No flights are canceled. There’s no stampede into pharmacies to stock up on face masks to protect against the flu, as there has been since the reports of coronavirus spiked.
True, several school districts around the country have canceled classes because a lot of the kids have the flu, but the rest of us mostly go on with our lives.
A lot of people are so complacent about the flu that they won’t take even the simplest precautions. Only about 45% of adults get the flu vaccine, which is cheap, readily available and has few side effects. What’s with the other 55%?
I suppose they think: Flu happens, why stress?
The shock of the new
So why all the interest in a disease halfway around the world?
Part of it is fear of the unknown. So little is known about this novel virus — about how easily it is transmitted, how deadly it might be, how successful the efforts to contain it will be, and about what useful treatments might be developed.
News by definition covers what’s new, what’s novel, what grabs people’s attention. There’s a reason that the papers only report it when a man bites a dog, and not the other way around. Flu isn’t news; this other virus is.
We are all familiar with the flu, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease and other ailments that kill thousands of people every year. We know about contagious diseases such as measles, mumps, malaria and chickenpox.
But when a new disease pops up with an exotic name — HIV, Ebola, SARS, MERS — we pay attention. One doctor joked to Kaiser Health’s reporter that the flu should be rebranded: “We should rename influenza; call it XZ-47 virus, or something scarier.”
We’ve been relatively lucky so far. Of the newly arrived diseases, only HIV has killed in massive numbers, and we now have effective treatments for that.
But if we don’t corral this coronavirus soon, it may escape into the world to infect millions of people every year, like the flu does. We certainly don’t need another disease that kills on the same scale as the flu.
The Chinese have mismanaged their response, leading us to question whether they are being straightforward with the facts even now. They initially downplayed the extent of the problem and then tried to quarantine entire cities with tens of millions of residents instead of focusing on those who were more likely to have been in contact with infected people.
Competence of strangers
The scariest thing about a pandemic is that there’s very little individuals can do to protect themselves beyond the usual nostrums about hand washing and avoiding crowds. We must rely on the kindness and competence of strangers, because taming a pandemic requires a high level of trust, cooperation, preparation and expert health care.
Those things are in short supply in today’s world.
International cooperation and trust in national governments are ebbing. Our just-in-time economy means that no one has stockpiled the things that would be needed in a crisis: the extra hospital beds, the containment equipment, and even doctors, nurses, and aides. The internet rumor mill has eroded faith in the expertise we’d need in a pandemic.
Maybe this crisis in China will move us to get ready to act instantly for the inevitable arrival of a novel virus that — unlike this coronavirus — is both very contagious and very deadly. That is highly unlikely as long as Donald Trump is president,
If we aren’t prepared, hundreds of millions will die when that virus surfaces.
Even if we all scrub our hands.
Read MarketWatch’s Coronavirus update: A new task force, 195 U.S. citizens in isolation and WHO decides if it’s a public health emergency