I begin with the concession that coronavirus is a significant issue and it ought to be taken seriously by those in positions of authority. The public should take it seriously, too, but for us that mostly means washing our hands and practicing the sort of healthy habits that should be a normal part of our lives already. I don’t think we’ve yet reached the point where it is necessary to kill anyone in your house who has a cough and burn their bodies in the backyard. Fortunately medical experts haven’t recommended that step. In fact, medical experts haven’t recommended much besides the standard hygiene methods mentioned above. And, by the way, they strongly urge against buying face masks.
The point is, coronavirus has infected around 90,000 people that we know of, and killed around 3,000, and made its way into 60 countries across the globe. No rational person would claim that it is unimportant or imaginary. But rational people will say, and are saying, that the panic, hysteria, and media hype are way overblown. We are not facing the apocalypse or anything close to it. Arguably, this isn’t even a pandemic (though it depends on how you define the term). I’m not sure that our culture is capable of being serious but not hysterical about something, but on this we should give it a try. And here are a few facts that hopefully put the issue into perspective:
1. The virus is not killing young, healthy people. Surprisingly it isn’t killing infants or children either. So far, the vast majority of serious and fatal cases are among the elderly and the sick. Of course, deaths in that demographic are tragic, too, but many illnesses are serious or potentially fatal to the very old and the immune-compromised.
2. The real mortality rate is almost certainly not the 2 or 3 percent that’s been reported. That number only applies to reported cases. In order to be a reported case, you need to go to the doctor or a hospital and get tested for the illness. Everyone who had the virus, never got tested, and recovered, is not counted against the official mortality rate because we don’t know about them and we don’t know how many of them there are.
The important point is that majority of cases are mild. Most of the time, the patient has a cough and a fever for a few days and then starts feeling better. Some people never show symptoms at all. On the negative end, this makes containing the illness more difficult, but on the positive, it means that there are almost certainly many thousands of people who had what they thought was a mild cold, never went to the doctor, and recovered. The real mortality rate, then, must be significantly lower than 2 or 3 percent. How low? Nobody knows. Some researchers think it might be a little less than 1 percent but even that is conjecture. We simply don’t have a large enough sample size. One other thing to remember: most of the 3,000 dead were in China where the healthcare system is in shambles. Even so, cases of coronavirus are already falling exponentially in China. There’s another reason for cautious optimism.
3. It’s easy to forget that we have suffered through and survived pandemics before, including very recently. Only 10 years ago the swine flu managed to infect over 60 million people and kill over 12 thousand — in the US alone. Globally, the death toll topped half a million. This, again, doesn’t mean that the coronavirus isn’t serious. It just means that the media-fueled panic is out of proportion and lacks perspective. As is always the case with panics.