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China’s coronavirus: We survive much worse every year, but the panic is the real danger

Rob Lyons
Rob Lyons

Rob Lyons is a UK journalist specialising in science, environmental and health issues. He is the author of 'Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder'.

Rob Lyons is a UK journalist specialising in science, environmental and health issues. He is the author of 'Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder'.

China’s coronavirus: We survive much worse every year, but the panic is the real danger
The new illness that has emerged in Wuhan, China in recent weeks has created panicked headlines across the world. But as history has shown time and again, while the deaths are saddening, the over-reaction is downright dangerous.

The World Health Organization reported that the novel coronavirus (‘2019-nCoV’ for short) had killed 170 people with a global total of 7,711 confirmed cases. All the deaths and the vast majority of cases have been in China, although close to 100  cases have been reported across over 20 other countries. According to a UK medical journal, The Lancet, the disease is very similar to two coronaviruses found in bats. The disease is therefore likely to have come to humans from bats via animals sold at a market in Wuhan.

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The virus is capable of jumping from person to person, with the first such case in Europe being reported in Germany on Tuesday, and transmission can occur before someone shows signs of being ill. While most people who present with the disease only suffer mild symptoms, in about 20 percent of cases, the symptoms are severe, including pneumonia, respiratory failure and death.

Over-reaction is more dangerous than the virus

Wuhan and surrounding areas have been placed on lockdown by the Chinese authorities, while celebrations for Chinese New Year have been curtailed and the holiday extended to try to limit the spread of the infection. In countries from the UK to Australia, travelers from the area are being placed in quarantine, while many of the major airlines have suspended flights to mainland China.

But while these measures may make sense in the short term as a means of restricting the spread of the virus, extending them for very long or encouraging general anxiety could actually cause more harm than the virus itself. 

The parallels with the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003 have been widely noted. Indeed, the new virus is similar to the one that caused SARS. By one estimate, SARS cost the global economy $50billion. Yet, according to the WHO, there were just 8,096 confirmed cases and 774 deaths before SARS all but disappeared. Thanks to the current crisis, prices for oil and other commodities have fallen sharply. Factories have remained closed, affecting companies and consumers expecting goods and the suppliers of raw materials.

The economic damage from 2019-nCoV could be substantially greater than from SARS because the Chinese economy is now far larger than it was in 2003 and its people much wealthier. For example, the UN World Tourism Organization estimates that in 2018 nearly 168 million Chinese travelled outside China, spending some $277 billion. That is already affecting everyone who sells goods or services to tourists, from Paris to Bangkok. For China itself, there are already estimates that the response to the outbreak could knock a whole one percent off GDP in the first quarter of the year.

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We’ve lived through much worse, and with much less fuss

When the stakes are so high, some perspective is required. While 2019-nCoV is new, it is very unlikely to result in as many deaths as diseases we have lived with for a very long time. 

For example, tuberculosis kills well over one million people worldwide each year and as many as one-third of the world’s population may be infected with it – although for the vast majority of people, their immune systems will keep the disease in check. Similar numbers may be dying from malaria. AIDS-related illnesses killed well over half a million people in 2018. Seasonal influenza kills, according to one estimate, anything from just under 300,000 to nearly 650,000 people globally per year. And these death tolls are small compared to the biggest killers of all: heart disease, strokes, cancer and dementia.

Moreover, thanks to scientific and economic progress, improved communications and international cooperation, we are now better placed to respond to new illnesses. Vaccines are already under development for 2019-nCoV, although they will take months or even years to be ready for widespread use after various stages of testing. Economic development provides the means to mobilise resources to fight outbreaks, even to the extent that the Chinese authorities claim they can build a new hospital in just six days. Being able to identify the fact of a new illness emerging and taking precautions could have a significant impact. By sharing genetic analyses quickly, for example, China has allowed other countries to identify new cases. 

While there is no cure for 2019-nCoV, simply having access to better hospital treatment – a benefit of economic development around the world, but particularly in China – should mean more people can survive the worst of the illness and recover successfully. 

While the idea of a new illness is scary, devoting too much attention, regulation and resources to 2019-nCoV could lead to economic misery for many. It could even mean deaths if medical attention is diverted from treating more mundane, but equally dangerous illnesses. Let’s hope authorities around the world keep a cool head.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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