As With SARS And H1N1, The Media Is Crying Wolf Over The Coronavirus

But this time, as in Aesop’s famous fable, the wolf is very real. And it’s hungry.

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Panic! at the Costco (source)

At least a quarter of the tweets I see about COVID-19 on Twitter are from naysayers who think that the virus is no big deal, that the media’s essentially using it for clickbait in the neverending quest for revenue. They point out how reporters ran around with their metaphorical heads on fire about SARS, MERS, and especially the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic, all of which were sorta bad, but never catastrophic. So why the heck should we pay the least attention to the doomsaying media today?

Because this time, the wolf is real. We’re looking at a very real likelihood of a pandemic that might actually compare with the 1918 H1N1 influenza that killed up to fifty million people.

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Sorry, Leonidas, but that spear won’t work so well on a virus.

How do we know that this time is different from all the rest, especially given that COVID-19 has only killed about 3,000 people, and that influenza killed eleven times that many — 34,000 — just in the 2018 flu season? This time’s different because COVID-19:

  • appears to be more contagious than influenza, though both are transmissible before symptoms show; and
  • may have an incubation period of up to twenty-seven days (thus possibly enabling transmission for up to two weeks); and
  • Appears to have a mortality rate several times higher than that of influenza.

Considering that last point:

Overall, per the CDC, the death rate of those who have been infected with the flu this flu season is 0.05%. According to the research conducted by the Chinese CDC, the case-fatality rate of novel coronavirus in China is 2.3%. (source)

Do the math. If those numbers are accurate, then COVID-19 is forty-six times deadlier than the most recent influenza. In 1918, about half of humanity caught the H1N1 influenza. If half of the eight billion-and-change humans on Earth are infected with incredibly-contagious COVID-19, a two-percent mortality rate translates to about eighty million deaths. To be sure, I strongly doubt the total death toll will reach even a fifth of that amount, but my doubts are based only on my gut feeling, whereas the hard numbers are, well, terrifying. It doesn’t help that there is substantial statistical uncertainly that seems to indicate that the current claims of a two-percent mortality rate may be underestimated.

On top of all that, recovery from COVID-19 may not confer permanent immunity:

“Unfortunately, we don’t know yet whether or not the body’s immune response would protect you from subsequent infection,” said Chiu. It is known that exposure to the four seasonal human coronaviruses (that cause the common cold) does produce immunity to those particular viruses. In those cases, the immunity lasts longer than that of seasonal influenza, but is probably not permanent, said Chiu. (source)

How fast is COVID-19 spreading compared to past diseases?

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A comparison between the spreads of COVID-19 compared to 2003 SARS (source)

What can you do about it? In terms of preventing exposure, probably not much. Yes, it’s important to minimize exposure, but chances are high that you and your family will be exposed at some point. If you are exposed, bookmark this list by the CDC of what to do. There is one possible inaccuracy on the list in that there is a report of a pet dog in Hong Kong having been placed in quarantine for testing (weakly) positive for COVID-19.

But even if you’re never infected by COVID-19, you’re not out of the woods. As I type this, there are multiple reports of runs at Costco and other stores for toilet paper, Clorox wipes, and food. This is panic buying. Should you engage in this panic buying? As a writer, I truly hate to say this, but perhaps you should consider doing precisely that. Why? Because while COVID-19’s mortality rate is ‘only’ two percent, it is incredibly contagious, and the fear that is just beginning to grip the nation is quite real. The logistics network that knits our nation together can’t function if too many people don’t show up for work due to real (or supposed) exposure to and/or symptoms of COVID-19. If the trains don’t run, the truck drivers don’t drive, and the longshoremen don’t work the ports, then store shelves are going to empty fairly quickly. What’s more, once those logistics networks begin to weaken and fail, they’re unlikely to recover until some time after the contagion has peaked. We’re nowhere close to that peak today.

In other words, even if you yourself are never exposed to COVID-19, you and your family can still be seriously affected by the disruption of our logistics networks. As for myself, I have never engaged in panic buying until today.

What should you buy?

  • non-perishable foods such as canned goods, mixes, beans, and rice. For Asian households like mine, consider purchasing several bags because the rice fields of Southeast Asia may shut down due to their own epidemics of COVID-19.
  • necessary medications, and
  • soap. Yes, Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer are nice to have, but soap lasts much longer, is every bit as effective, and is much cheaper.

Those are your priorities. If you can, get enough to last for two months. Yes, this sounds alarmingly over-the-top, but COVID-19 is here now, and the societal disruptions it’s causing are happening now.

Another consideration: keep close touch with your friends and family through phone or social media. The day may come that you or they may need help, even including the possibility of needing to call 911 or other emergency services. During great pandemics of the past, it wasn’t unusual to find homes where a mother had died and her baby had starved or frozen to death because the mother was no longer able to provide the care. If you want to know how bad it can get, I strongly recommend reading John Barry’s The Great Influenza, the story of the 1918 H1N1 influenza pandemic. It is without question the scariest book I’ve ever read, the more so because it was not only real, but even today we might well face many of the situations described therein.

Lastly, it is likely that very few people who read this have any first- or second-hand stories of the 1918 H1N1 influenza. That was the last great worldwide pandemic, and yes, it did kill up to fifty million people (when our worldwide population was only about one billion). Historically speaking, humanity is way overdue for another major pandemic. Add to that the population explosion and our previously unheard-of ease of travel around the world, and voila! Viruses can now propagate across the planet in a day, infecting countless people much more quickly than ever before, even sometimes overwhelming the capability of health services.

COVID-19 isn’t bad yet, but it certainly will be, and there is every indication that it will get much worse. It may mutate to a less-dangerous pathogen, but that’s only a possibility. Until the pandemic peaks and lessens, then, we must be prepared. Educate yourselves about how to best avoid the risks and mitigate exposure, and — as much as it shames me to advise panic buying — stock up on food, meds, and soap.

Afterword: as a writer, I realize that I am engaging in fear-mongering and I am ashamed for doing so. I earnestly pray that I am wrong, badly wrong, stupidly wrong. I would like nothing better than for this time next year, that every reader would publicly ridicule me for being wrong in everything I said above, because that would mean that millions would be alive and well.

But I don’t think I am wrong, and thus feel that it is my responsibility to spread the word. Be well, and be prepared.

Written by

Retired Navy. Inveterate contrarian. If I haven’t done it, I’ve usually done something close.

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