Coronavirus: Should you be afraid?
You’ve seen “the breathless headlines,” said Shannon Palus in Slate.com, reading like the previews from “a pandemic movie.” The Wuhan coronavirus that became an epidemic in China last month is sowing panic around the globe, with more than 20,000 confirmed cases, 425 dead, and experts increasingly convinced its spread can’t be contained. (See Business and International.) But for Americans, “it’s not as scary as it sounds.” There have been only 11 confirmed cases here, which means the current odds of getting it are near zero. And even if you were to somehow contract the virus, symptoms for most people are not life-threatening—a fever, respiratory congestion, and a cough. “Treatment means riding out the symptoms as you would with a common cold.”
If you want to fret about illness, worry about the flu, said Marc Siegel in the Los Angeles Times. You’re “a million times more likely to encounter” the influenza virus over the next few months. This season, the flu is believed to have infected more than 19 million Americans, hospitalized as many as 310,000, and killed more than 10,000. Compared with that, the coronavirus risk is “trivial,” said Rex Nutting at MarketWatch.com. And yet we’re so complacent about the flu that many “won’t take even the simplest precautions.” Only 45 percent of adults get the flu vaccine, which is cheap and widely available. There’s no vaccine for the new virus, but the same basic rules apply for preventing infection for any respiratory virus: “Wash your hands often; don’t put your fingers in your eyes, nose, or mouth; and stay away from people who are coughing.”
So why, then, are people panicking? asked David Ropeik in The Washington Post. “When it comes to risk, we are not always as wise as we think we are.” From Ebola to the Zika virus, we “instinctively worry more about new risks than familiar ones,” especially risks we don’t fully understand. Fear can create its own problems, said Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. It can lead to the spread of “rumor, exaggeration, and wild misinformation,” as well as scapegoating. It’s already begun, with an online explosion of “racist memes blaming Chinese people and Chinese culture for the virus.” Yes, the new virus is scary. “How we respond to it may be worse.” ■