Yes, The Coronavirus Should Scare You S**tless

Not only now, but in the decades to come.

Many people like to be contrarians, to take the viewpoint less popular in the view of the experts and PhD’s. I admit I’m one of those who does so, who rails against conservative wisdom, who stands on a rock trying to tell the rest of the lemmings to not follow the one jumping off that cliff.

But sometimes, conventional wisdom is right. Today’s collective freak-out over the coronavirus is one such example. The experts are right, and you and your family would do well to listen to them.

I first really understood the danger of pandemics after reading John Barry’s “The Great Influenza” which was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize. This is without exception the scariest book I’ve ever read. In the book, Barry describes just how easily the H1N1 virus was spread from person to person, from Kansas to the battlefields of WWI, from Inuit villages that suffered a 100% mortality rate to Indian trains that arrived with scores of corpses that had begun the journey in apparent full health. Barry’s descriptions recollections of collections of corpses in Philadelphia little different from that experienced during the Black Death of pre-Renaissance Europe. During the 1918–19 plague, America suffered nearly 700,000 deaths when our national population was less than one-third what it is today.

It was that book that opened my eyes to just how dangerous a pandemic can be. Most of us have grown up not having to worry about smallpox or polio or measles, and so we don’t realize how bad a pandemic can be. It can be rightly said that we’re all stupidly lucky for having grown up in a time wherein vaccines and proper medical care were the norm rather than the exception.

The downside of such “luck” is that people begin to downplay the danger of viruses and infections. Even here on Medium, there are those who claim that the panic over the coronavirus in China is no big deal, that it’s just more grist for the mill of modern media in its never-ending quest for more viewers.

But here’s the reality: the Wuhan coronavirus combines the worst fears of epidemiologists and viologists in that it (1) is transmissible human-to-human, (2) contagious before any symptoms are evident, and (3) its symptoms are not much different from “normal” influenza. In other words, even after the symptoms appear, people think it’s no big deal, that it’s just the flu or a bad cold, and so they interact (and often infect) many more people than they normally would have before seeking treatment.

Okay, does this mean that everything’s going to go to hell in a handbasket, that society’s going to shut down with the spread of coronavirus? Of course not. What it does mean is that life is going to go on, that we’re all going to do what we must, for as long as we can do so. It also means that if we’re wise, we will avoid physical contact as much as possible, that we will avoid being in enclosed spaces with a lot of other people if possible, and that even then, we will do what we can to prevent contact. This doesn’t mean that one is giving in to hysteria, but simply that one is being careful.

There is a very real possibility that the screening and quarantine by other nations (especially China) will be sufficient. But until the word is broadcast that the danger has passed, it is much wiser to be cautious in everything.

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

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