We’re all gonna die! (truism)

I see that the head of the World Health Organization is quoted as saying of the current coronavirus outbreak, “This is not a drill.” Very helpful, I’m sure. Apparently, a lot of people out there thought this was a drill.

That wisdom to one side, I shall carry on with my concluding unscientific postscript on the current Pandemic That Ate a Planet:

A normal flu epidemic — such as hits every year during “flu season” — infects a percentage of the population that would shock everyone if we actually talked about the number. The reason we don’t talk about such numbers is that everyone knows he is exposing himself to a variety of bugs every year, and probably contracting many of them at some point or other. This common knowledge is why we all casually talk, during a typical winter, about how “everyone in the office has had this thing over the past three weeks,” or “every kid in my son’s class was sick, so they had to postpone the field trip.” That’s sort of what the word “epidemic” means, after all.

Here, then, for those in need of some numerical context, is a summary of recent flu outbreaks in the United States, from the federal government’s official office of such numbers, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

CDC estimates that influenza has resulted in between 9 million – 45 million illnesses, between 140,000 – 810,000 hospitalizations and between 12,000 – 61,000 deaths annually since 2010.

The first thing you ought to notice about those estimates is that the numbers themselves are huge compared to the numbers being thrown around right now regarding the coronavirus outbreak. The low estimate on exclusively American flu illnesses in a given year, nine million, positively dwarfs the current number of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide, which is just over one hundred thousand right now. (That’s ninety times more, and remember that nine million is from the U.S. population alone, which constitutes less than 1/20 of the global population.) Of course I understand that the current pandemic is ongoing, so we are far from having the final figure, which is certain to be much, much larger than what the media is reporting now, but reporting as though it indicated a global holocaust. That’s part of what I am talking about when I repeatedly lament the lack of context in the public discussion of the coronavirus. 

The second thing you might have noticed about those CDC numbers is that the estimates are wildly broad. We really don’t know how many people contract any given virus, because most people with the virus don’t actually get sick, or don’t care much that they are a little under the weather; hence, they simply don’t get tested and diagnosed. I myself have probably had at least one pretty good bout of the flu at some point during most of the years of my life, and yet to my recollection I have never been tested for, or diagnosed with, a flu as such, simply because I have never gone to a doctor complaining of flu symptoms. 

And even the people who feel sick enough to go to a doctor or hospital with flu-like symptoms are rarely diagnosed officially with the flu, which is why even the flu-related hospitalization estimate is so broad. In any case, we do know that the numbers of flu cases, flu hospitalizations, and flu deaths in the U.S. alone in a typical year are vastly higher than the total global cases of coronavirus so far. Context matters.

Because none of us have had this coronavirus before, however, none of us have built up antibodies to fight it, which is one reason why it is hitting an inordinate number of people very hard in this early stage. As the virus mutates, which it seems to have begun to do, the weaker strains will spread more quickly than the stronger ones, because people who get very sick are socially isolated pretty quickly — as is typical in almost all flu outbreaks — and therefore the weaker strains of the virus, which cause milder symptoms, will spread around, gradually (likely) weakening the severity of the outbreak by infecting many of us with a low-risk bug that our bodies will learn to fight.

If you read about the so-called Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, as I discussed in a post yesterday, you will see how the dynamic I have just outlined normally works, by observing what happens when you remove all those normal conditions. World War I spread the worst strains of that virus most widely, because healthy young men had it, but they had no choice but to travel around the world with it in large troop movements, eventually infecting tens of millions with the deadliest form. Furthermore, governments hid what they knew about the spread of the virus for the sake of wartime morale, which allowed even more damage to be done in a few critical weeks, as everyone back home was in the dark about it — unlike today, where everyone is aware of it early, and advising each other about precautions we should all take.

As readers here know, I live in Korea, where the economy and national mind are in a bit of a freefall at the moment, mostly due to fear and media hype, rather than to the actual direct effects of the virus.

Plain advice, suitable for preventing the infection and impeding the spread of any flu virus: Wash your hands after contact with anyone or anything in a public place. Don’t touch your own face (especially rubbing your eyes) until you have washed your hands. Don’t attend large-scale social gatherings — including shopping at a popular mall during peak hours — unless absolutely necessary. Follow reasonable etiquette about coughing around other people (i.e., cough into your sleeve), and if you feel sick, take your temperature and consider staying home or otherwise isolating yourself for a while, if at all possible.

On top of all that, do not panic, do not search the internet for predictions about how this is “the big one,” and do not put much stock in the unscientific, hyperbolic language of media or political sources that have obvious vested interests in telling you things that will be harmful (or helpful, for that matter) to Donald Trump, Moon Jae-in, or any other politician.

Relax a bit. It’s a virus outbreak, not a nuclear war. The world will go on, as will life for the overwhelming majority of us when this thing has passed. As of this moment, 47 people have died of this virus in Korea, over the course of a month. A normal flu year kills 2,900 here, most of them within a couple of month-long outbreaks in early and late winter. All of the coronavirus deaths here so far seem to have been from among the elderly and/or those very vulnerable due to underlying conditions — the kind of people who tend to suffer fatal complications from various flu bugs in any normal year.

Fear and helplessness breed both irrational anger, and irrational desires for “someone to do something,” as though any human (let alone a government) can make all scary things go away. This kind of emotionalism never leads to any social benefits, and it very often leads to great social harm.

Just do what you would normally do to avoid exposing yourself to a virus that’s going around, and don’t let yourself get caught up in the media’s obsession with “the numbers,” which are all being thrown at us out of context, necessarily making them sound much scarier than they would if we actually saw this situation within a reasonable context.

End of sermon. Have a great weekend everyone. Go listen to McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane.

You may also like...