The outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus in China has dominated the news in the last month. While I commend officials for being aggressive in dealing with the outbreak, the public reaction has been disproportionate, to say the least.
Last week, State Representative Gene Wu had to hold a press conference to let Houstonians know he and his family were dining in Chinatown to allay fears that people might be infected there. I recently spoke to a friend that was considering cancelling a vacation to Italy because of the virus.
Since the outbreak, about 800 people have died from the Coronavirus. During that time over 60,000 people have died from the flu. 72,000 have died from malaria and over 150,000 have died in automobile accidents. In other words, 360 times more people have died from these common perils as those who have died from the Coronavirus so far.
Humans have survived the millennia by assessing and avoiding risks. New risks make a greater impression on us because it takes a while for our brain to determine the seriousness of the risk. [Click here for a discussion of the brain’s processing of risk from Wired magazine.]
We have learned that driving a car is potentially a very dangerous activity. But we have also learned that the risk of actually being killed in a car accident is very low. The average American has about a 1 in 9,000 chance of being killed in a car accident in any given year.
We saw similar reactions around the outbreaks of Ebola, SARS, Avian flu and Zika. All were dangerous, but the effect of each in global terms ultimately proved limited. Our brains eventually processed the risks to each of us on an individual basis accordingly and the hysteria went away.
I am not minimizing the risk of a global pandemic. The 1918-1919 Spanish flu epidemic killed over 50 million people, more than the total in casualties in World War I. But there is a big difference between 1918 and today. Then, there was no CDC, no World Health Organization, no gene sequencing and only a rudimentary understanding of viruses and their transmission.
In this outbreak, China, the U.S. and other countries have moved aggressively to contain the virus. Even China’s reaction has improved from its absurd denials during the SARS outbreak. The virus’ genome has already been sequenced. And it appears that a potential vaccine and/or an antiviral may be available in months. My guess is that a year from now there will be virtually no news coverage on the Coronavirus.
In the meantime, if you really want to protect yourself, get a flu shot and don’t text and drive.