“This essay was published originally on February 20, 2020… it’s darkly comical in its underestimation of what was heading our way.
Humble pie is a dish best served constantly.”
Almost twelve thousand people infected.
More than 250 dead.
Once again, a new and dangerous virus has escaped its birthplace and begun to march inexorably around the globe.
At the epicenter this time: Wuhan, China, a sprawling metropolis of 11 million people.
It and at least 15 other Chinese cities—more than 60 million people—are on lock-down.
Two brand-new hospitals— frantically erected almost overnight to attend to the afflicted—will open next week in Wuhan.
Municipal leaders have ordained that all residents should wear masks in public; drones are being deployed to berate citizens who don’t comply. Larger drones are fighting the virus by spraying disinfectant over villages and cities.
All planes and trains have been banned from leaving Wuhan. Toll roads are closed. Ferry, subway and bus services have been suspended.
Multiple countries—including my own—are sending airplanes to evacuate their citizens. (The flight ban doesn’t apply to them, apparently.)
Thus far, the majority of those infected—and all of the dead—remain in China.
But it was naive for anyone to think that the outbreak would largely stay there. The virus is doing what viruses do: spreading from person to person to person.
Already, infected individuals have cropped up in at least 24 countries around the world, Britain the latest jurisdiction to announce the entrance of the virus just as the country finally exited the EU.
To be clear, the Wuhan virus—2019nCoV—isn’t a “flu”. It’s a mutant coronavirus—a common-cold virus gone rogue. As with the common cold, each person infected with 2019nCoV can infect two to three others, doubling the amount of people infected approximately every six days.
Of course, a garden-variety common cold isn’t fatal; whereas the Wuhan virus has been reported to kill as many as 2% of its victims. That number may prove to be inflated: many of those infected, it now appears, suffer mild illness or remain completely asymptomatic—they don’t seek medical attention and they aren’t included in the denominator. In fact, scientists now estimate that 75,000 people have been infected in Wuhan—which if true would drive the case fatality rate down to 0.2%.
It’s too early to know whether the Chinese attempt at large-scale quarantine—unprecedented in scope—will succeed in restraining the reach of the virus. The matter is complicated by the fact that the horse, as it were, had already fled the stables: an estimated five million people left the city after the epidemic ignited but before the quarantine was enacted.
We have been serially admonished by health officials to remain calm. Nonetheless, a global climate of fear has taken root, spawning a blizzard of international travel warnings, canceled business trips, ruined vacations, and hysterical exaggerations – imbued, sadly, by an ugly vibe of xenophobic and racist slurs targeting Asians.
Reason itself has gone on vacation. Nine thousand freaked-out Toronto-area parents and community members, for example, signed a petition to prohibit students whose families had travelled to China in the past 17 days from attending school.
A “Christian” pastor in Florida—following the despicable script common to the pseudo-Christians that infest America’s landscape—announced that the viral scourge was a “Death Angel” sent to punish a perverted world. “This is the time to get right with God,” he advised darkly.
On a sunnier note, even beer is taking a hit. Large numbers of people are apparently having trouble distinguishing Corona Extra from the Wuhan bug: Google searches for “Corona virus beer” have gone through the roof.
Hospitals everywhere are on heightened alert. Pandemic-control protocols have been dusted off and tweaked in preparation for the worst. (The news that a Chinese doctor attending infected patients died last weekend of the virus came as sobering reminder of the elevated risk faced—as always—by front-line health care workers.)
Many comparisons have been made to SARS—another mutated coronavirus—which similarly sent the planet into frenzy in 2003, and which killed 774 people around the world before it finally fizzled out.
With all that drama and anxiety as backdrop, imagine what the response would be if scientists happily announced today, for immediate distribution, a new vaccine against 2019nCoV (they are indeed racing to develop one, but unfortunately no vaccine is on the near horizon).
It’s a sure bet, given that scenario, that clinics would be promptly over-run by hordes of anxious people stampeding to get vaccinated. And understandably so.
There is rich irony here. Because amidst all the furor around the Wuhan virus, another lethal virus has been stalking the world, claiming thousands upon thousands of victims.
It’s called influenza.
Already this flu season in the U.S, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 15 million Americans have fallen sick with influenza; more than 150,000 have been hospitalized, and more than 8,000 people have perished.
In Canada every year influenza results in 12,000 hospitalizations and 3,500 deaths.
The grim annual death toll from influenza for the entire world, according to the WHO, is more than 600,000 souls. That’s not a typo.
Yet we don’t cordon off cities to fight the flu.
We don’t blast out screaming headlines multiple times each day with updated body counts.
We don’t bother with thermal screening at airports.
We don’t shut down major transportation hubs.
We don’t morph into raging xenophobes and racists triggered by whichever jurisdiction generates each season’s first influenza cases.
We don’t scare the stuffing out of our children.
In short, we don’t panic. We accept infectious diseases as part of our world, and for the most part we go calmly about our business.
There is, regrettably, another thing the majority of us don’t do: sixty percent of us don’t get vaccinated against the flu.
Flu vaccines are developed by scientists in advance of each flu season, based on which flu strains are thought likely to be dominant; they reduce the chance of acquiring influenza by forty to sixty percent.
But most of us don’t bother to get the vaccine.
Many of us who would rush to get immunized against the Wuhan virus—if a vaccine of similar quality became available—to protect ourselves against a virus that may end up killing 800 people globally (if it proves to be as deadly as SARS) can’t be bothered to get immunized against influenza, which kills 600,000 people every single year.
There are many reasons for this, not least of which is that familiarity breeds contempt. The flu is a devil we know. Or at least one that we think we know. We co-opt the term—wrongly—for every cough, every runny nose, every bout of vomiting or diarrhea, every sore throat. “It’s just the flu,” we say.
I propose that we tag each season’s influenza viruses with monikers appropriate to their lethality. Replace the bland Influenza A and Influenza B handles with Hannibal-1 and Lucifer-2 and watch people stream nervously to vaccination clinics.
We aren’t helped, to state the obvious, by the strident anti-vaxxers—led by Gwyneth Paltrow of Goop notoriety—and their endlessly spun falsehoods around immunizations, lies amplified by social media into a toxic stew of fear and ignorance.
One assumes, should 2019nCoV make it to our shores in any meaningful way, that Gwyneth will promptly convene nationwide vaginal-steaming retreats enriched by insertion of jade eggs into those freshly-warmed nether regions as robust barriers to infection. (If you’re a man that may be a tad difficult to pull off—or put in, rather; but not to worry—so woke have we become that you have only to identify as a woman, and presto, it is so. Happy steaming, men.)
None of this is to belittle the new viral threat from China. Not at all.
But in the big scheme of things, compared to the monster that is the flu, the Wuhan virus (at this stage, at least) is but a tiny droplet drowned out by Niagara Falls.
The World Health Organization this week declared the Wuhan outbreak to be a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (a “PHEIC”—pronounced “fake” in the lingo of the trade).
The threat isn’t fake.
It’s certainly real.
But the fear-mongering is over the top.
Should you be vigilant? Yes.
But fearful? No.
Be sensible. Wash your hands frequently and properly. Stay home if you’re sick. Cough into your elbow, like we teach our kids.
Stay away from clinics and emergency rooms, unless you really need to be there.
And for crying out loud, get your flu vaccine, already.