It is rather a surprise to learn that we are all going to die from a viral pandemic, considering that we have all already died from swine flu, bird flu, SARS, and that one time when four people had Ebola. Nonetheless, if media reports are to be believed, we are on the verge of yet another planet-wide outbreak. This time, the imaginary global destruction will happen courtesy of the coronavirus.
Back in realityville, the coronavirus has infected 2,700 people, or about .00003% of the global population. Almost all of the cases are in China, where the death toll has reached 82. The majority of these deaths were people who had the misfortune of already being old and sick before they contracted the virus, compounded by the disadvantage of living with China’s “ailing” health care system. Outside of China, there have been around 50 cases, none of them fatal. So far, five people in the United States have been diagnosed and none have died. Of the approximately 327,000,000 people in the U.S., approximately 326,999,995 do not have the coronavirus. There is no good reason to think that the latter number will significantly shrink, as the infected people pose a “low risk” to the public, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, none of this has stopped the media from printing scary graphics showing how the disease you almost certainly will not contract will affect you if it does, giving tips on how to “stay safe,” putting terrifying things in their headlines like “containing new coronavirus may not be feasible, using the word “pandemic” to describe something that is not actually a pandemic, running fantasy simulations to show what might happen in a “hypothetical” worst-case scenario, and urging the public to “protect” itself.
I don’t mean to spoil the twist ending, but here’s how to protect yourself from the coronavirus if you live in America: Do nothing special at all. Carry on with your life. Wash your hands. Avoid ingesting the bodily fluids of strangers, as much as possible. Do all of the normal things you would do to maintain a healthy life. Media reports indicate that face masks are an “ineffective” way of preventing the spread of the virus. What the reports forget to mention is that it would be a sign of delusional paranoia if a person in the United States went around wearing a mask for fear of a disease that almost nobody in this hemisphere actually has.
I am not downplaying the significance of this illness. For people who live in China, especially in or near Wuhan, this is a very real public health emergency. But many parts of the world are plagued by many illnesses that either rarely make it onto our shores, or are easily contained and treated when they do. Tuberculosis still kills millions across the globe while comparatively few die from it in this country. Meningitis is a major killer in Africa but claims only a few hundred lives annually in the United States. For all the lumps our health care system takes, deserved and undeserved, the fact is that we generally don’t die from a great many diseases that kill a great many people elsewhere on Earth. And that is why the relatively high mortality rate of the coronavirus is not proof that the disease itself is significantly deadlier than garden-variety pneumonia. All we know is that it is potentially deadlier in Wuhan, where every disease is potentially deadlier.
If you’re a U.S. citizen looking for a disease to worry about, I could suggest more relevant options. The common flu, for example, killed 57,000 people in the U.S. alone last year, which is actually significantly lower than the death toll the year before. That’s a body count nearly 1,000 times higher than the current figure for the coronavirus. And we’re talking about U.S. deaths, in this case. True, most people who die of the flu are either very old or very young. But the same is the case for the coronavirus. Even the aforementioned tuberculosis and meningitis are more reasonable candidates for public panic. Pretty much any disease would be, considering the current death toll for the coronavirus in America is zero. If that number jumps from zero to one, or three, or even fifteen, there still would be no reason for panic. The media wants you to panic because panic means clicks, and clicks generate revenue. Don’t fall for it. Again.