The SARS coronavirus that first came to the attention of the World Health Organization in February 2003 raged like wildfire, eventually infecting over 8,000 people, and claiming 774 deaths in 17 countries. Once SARS entered the world stage, mass panic spread even faster, however — people, social creatures, are understandably scared by unpredictable and chaotic novelties, especially of the potentially-fatal variety, and have a deep need to make sense of them as soon as possible. On their quest to better cope with something scary, they look to the mass media.
One fascinating study that analyzed how the UK popular press covered the SARS outbreak found that terms like "lethal", "mysterious", "killer bug", and "moving at the speed of a jet" fueled preexisting fears. More than that, the media tended to portray the populations hit first as living in "insanitary, cramped conditions" among the animals that first transmitted the virus to humans, while coughing and sneezing without covering their faces — savages, basically. While western scientists were described as competent and hard at work, Chinese ones were mainly written about in the context of receiving help from their, ultimately, (or so the media implied) more civilized counterparts, to save their population from certain death.
Does that sound familiar? It should, because much the same is happening right now, in the midst of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak.
This kind of mass panic, which may be far more contagious than the Wuhan coronavirus itself, is causing some people to hurl insults at vaguely Asian-looking fellow citizens — scared they'll transmit the virus even if they haven't been to China in decades, or even ever — and folks who would normally have brushed their coughs and sneezes off as a simple cold to worry their deaths may be imminent.
We can all be sure we'll die one day, but most people reading this will not be dying very soon, and even fewer are likely to die from causes related to the Wuhan coronavirus. So here's how concerned you should really be about the coronavirus, and what you should be worried about instead. And because action usually trumps mindless, media-fueled worry, we'll also supply some simple and common-sense steps to reduce your risk of catching the novel coronavirus even further. (Frankly, they're all things you should be doing anyway.)
Just how worried should you be about the coronavirus outbreak?
If you live in the United States, as many of our readers do, not very — unless you have recently been to China or have been in close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the virus or is suspected to have it.
US Health and Services Secretary Alex Azar reiterated this in a press statement, when he said: "While this virus poses a serious public health threat, the risk to the American public remains low at this time, and we are working to keep this risk low." The CDC and National Foundation for Infectious Diseases both agree, with the NFID's president-elect Dr Patricia Whitley-Williams pointing out that we'd all do well to be much more frightened of seasonal flu.
Microbiologist Dr Boris Popovic shared more details with SteadyHealth: "A lot of fear-mongering articles have already been written about this disease. Keep in mind that the headline is meant to sell newspapers, or to gain as many hits on the website as possible. Take all this information with a grain of salt, because the numbers presented should be observed as part of a bigger picture, like the total number of infected people vs the number of people who died, or how easy it is to get infected by the virus."
That's to say, we could publish articles with headlines like "this disease claims 650,000 lives every year", or "up to a billion people are infected with this scary virus annually, and many of them die", without ever lying — we're talking about seasonal flu here. We could also induce fear of Salmonella by pointing out that 1.3 million people get sick from it in the United States every year. Those kinds of headlines are called clickbait. They may serve a purpose, of course — whether it's to get you to remember your annual flu shot or to change your food hygiene habits, certainly worthy goals — but they're still clickbait.
How concerned should you really be about the coronavirus outbreak? Dr Popovic explains:
"It’s still to early too estimate how dangerous Covid-19 is, for a number of reasons — the disease is fairly new, it’s been around for less than two months, and it’s not possible to draw any statistical conclusions about the epidemiology of this disease yet. We’re still not sure about the pace of mutation for this exact virus, and extreme measures have been taken to stop the spread of the disease.
What we do know, as of February 17, 2020, is that 71,449 people have been confirmed to be infected, and 1,775 have died so far, which brings us to a fatality rate of 2.48 percent.
Meaning that, for every 100,000 people infected, 248 would die. What needs to be noted is that a lot of people got infected in the first few weeks of the epidemic, while the disease was still unknown, and the infected people showed no symptoms. With all the precautionary measures, the number of newly infected cases is declining.
Once again, these numbers vary from day to day, since the epidemic is still ongoing, and the exact numbers will be known after the epidemic has ended. It’s also important how you interpret these numbers. For instance, in the Philippines, there have been three confirmed cases, and one person died. Which means that the fatality rate in this case is 33 percent. On the other hand, 77 people were diagnosed with this disease in Singapore, and none died."
So, let’s look at some other numbers, to put things into perspective.
Let's remember that. If we, as Melvin Konner said, cancel our international trips because we're scared of terrorist attacks, we should also at least be scared of the things that are much more likely to kill us.
What can you do to reduce your risk of contracting the coronavirus — and other nasty respiratory infections?
Falling victim to mass panic won't do you any good, but these common-sense steps, recommended by both the Centers for Disease Control and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, will help keep you safe not just from the Wuhan coronavirus, but also from much more common ailments like the seasonal flu and common cold:
- Wash your hands often and properly — for at least 20 seconds, with water and soap, and dry them afterwards.
- Don't touch your face with your hands, or at least try very hard.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces that may harbor respiratory viruses — like doorknobs, computer keyboards, and elevator buttons, to name just a few — often.
- If you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth. If you have respiratory symptoms like a fever, sore throat, fatigue, headache, coughs, and sneezes, seek medical attention. Don't go out and about in public when you're ill. Get your annual flu shot. Yes, it's a bit late right now, but there's still time. (No, it won't protect you from the Wuhan coronavirus, but it will greatly reduce your risk of catching a seasonal flu.)
- Stay away from sick people.
Yes, wear a surgical or small-particle filtering mask if it makes you feel safer. (You want the n95 models, in that case.) Take precautionary measures. Just don't panic. It's not good for your health.