Staying rational in spite of all the evidence in favor of doing so

Now that Trump has spoken publicly about the new coronavirus outbreak, the American blogosphere will be dominated for days with vigorous arguments (i.e., rabid posturing) for or against one’s favorite political representative, as though this issue had any proper connection to politics. Of course, in this age, everything is connected to politics. Not to political philosophy, political community, or political history, mind you — just to “politics” in our contemporary sense, which is generally little more than schoolyard fights by other means.

As most of my readers are American, and as I have begun to see this predicted online shift to coronavirus fever in the political forums — “Trump’s not doing enough,” “Trump’s fixing the problem” — perhaps I must enter the fray yet again today, although I swore I would write about something else today (and I will, shortly, I promise). 

Since I live and work in Korea, I have a slightly “privileged” perspective on this story, compared with those of my readers who have had little direct experience with this outbreak’s social and economic effects. My university has delayed the start of its spring semester, as have most others. Public schools are also on hiatus. Major skills exams, such as foreign language tests and government official exams, have been postponed. Small businesses are laying off workers because they are losing most of their customers due to widespread fear of going out in public. Almost everyone here wears a mask in public now, even in sparsely-peopled outdoor locations. 

Having said that, perhaps I can start my little stroll through Rational Perspective Land right there, with the ubiquitous masks. North Americans seeing those images of masses of masked Asians in the streets of Seoul will almost certainly be processing them as evidence of a warzone-level crisis over here. Don’t. Koreans all wear masks sometimes, particularly during flu seasons or high-pollution days. Many university students, especially girls, wear masks to class on days when they merely didn’t have time to put on makeup. (It’s common to have several masked women in class during exam periods, for example.)

In this case, due to the extreme media hype about this virus, a much higher percentage of people can be seen wearing these masks than on a normal day. In fact, the whole country sold out of masks last week, when the first big wave of cases was discovered. And that’s really saying something, because, unlike North America, masks are typically available, and a popular item, in every convenience store in the country. That in itself is a hint of how common it is for Koreans to put on a mask whenever there is a public concern about anything harmful or contagious in the air. 

Now, to the main point. Again, I’m sorry if you’ve heard me saying some of this before, but I feel it is necessary as a public service at this point, or at least as a matter of my conscience. 

Korea has the second-highest number of infections so far — not surprisingly, given our proximity to China. The vast majority of the cases here are directly traceable to a large religious congregation in the central city of Daegu, many of whom recently traveled to Wuhan China on a religious mission. The huge new influx of confirmed cases over the past two days is a direct result of the authorities having identified all the members of that church and subjected them to mass testing. This sudden jump is entirely an effect of that practical circumstance, and was predicted.

Those in the media (followed by the perpetually excitable in the online chatter) citing mortality rates over three percent are focusing on the Chinese numbers (by far the biggest known numbers), which are undoubtedly skewed by that government’s refusal to report the truth about anything. The untrustworthiness of the Chinese Communist Party does not indicate that the real mortality rate is higher than reported, however. On the contrary, it suggests that the real mortality rate will be much lower than currently available, due to the underreporting of confirmed infections. (It’s harder to avoid reporting death numbers, because families tend to notice that their grandfathers are not home. Infections, on the other hand, are easy to underreport, because most of the infected will show few if any symptoms.)

Now to the point with which I am most familiar. Here in Korea, the current mortality rate from the known cases is 0.7%. Less than one percent. In raw numbers, we have had thirteen deaths so far, as of my writing this sentence — the majority of them weak and uncared-for patients at a single horribly managed mental hospital. In other words, they were the most vulnerable, the kind of people who always get nailed in a flu epidemic.

This, to restate it for emphasis, is a flu epidemic. The word “epidemic” scares laymen, because most of us don’t live in a sphere in which such words are commonly used, outside of horror movies. In truth, there are multiple flu epidemics every year, in every advanced country. A “pandemic” (even scarier word, thanks to media hype) is just an epidemic that has spread wider around the globe. In this case, a flu bug that has spread around the world.

Just a couple of days ago, I read and then wrote about a scientific study from 2015 which used a statistical model to calculate the number of flu-related deaths in Korea in an average year. The final result was 2,900. In an average year. So far, this coronavirus outbreak has killed 13.

Keep your heads, friends.

And by the way, to my American friends, do I believe the Democrats and their media allies would be willing (and happy) to instigate an economic collapse over this flu hype just to weaken Republicans going into the election? Are you kidding me? Isn’t that just the normal mechanics of modern party politics? Two days ago, for example, four hundred thousand Koreans signed a petition demanding that President Moon Jae-in be impeached — because some people have the flu.

I strongly dislike Moon, just as I strongly dislike Trump. But so far, this “pandemic” panic is at least 90% media profiteering and political cynicism. Calm down, eat well, exercise, and wash your hands. And if you think you have respiratory flu symptoms, stay indoors and don’t go infecting others — just like with any virus.

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