People are scared. 361 have died, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has labelled it a global health emergency, and people around the world are being denied entry into foreign countries for fear of the mysterious flu-like illness spreading at a pace so rapid they are calling it a potential pandemic. A pro-Trump blogger just accused a Chinese scientist of having created the infection as a bio-weapon, and experts are fearing the Wuhan-borne virus is about to become a pandemic. But is the Coronavirus merely a scarier and slightly more uncontrollable version of the flu? And why are we so scared of this rapidly spreading virus, when actually the common flu kills more people each and every year?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 19 million cases of influenza, 180,000 hospitalisations and 10,000 deaths in the U.S. alone this flu season – including more children and young adults than ever. During last year’s flu season, 1800 people died. And according to the WHO, globally there are three to five million severe cases of the flu every year, killing 650,000 people on average. But for some reason, this new illness – the novel coronavirus (nCoV), a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans – is seriously freaking us out, despite the fact that just 361 people have been fatally impacted by the highly contagious virus so far.
Admittedly, the number of deaths as a result has just surpassed that of the 2003 SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic, but still, we are talking 361 cases so far verses an average 650,000 killed from flu annually. And while influenza impacts every person affected in much the same way, the coronavirus has so far only killed those people living within the province in which the disease originated – that of Wuhan, China.
“If you didn’t travel specifically to Wuhan, China, or have contact with a person with suspected or known coronavirus, your chance of contracting this is extremely low,” said Dr. Nora Colburn, an infectious-disease physician at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center. Meanwhile, a person can contract the flu by simply touching a chair that has been touched by someone with influenza, although usually influenza viruses are spread by droplets made when an infected person coughs or sneezes and those droplets come into contact with another person.
Is it the constant media attention to the growing epidemic and the quick political response that has us all fearing for our lives? I live in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – a distant neighbour of China – and already the shops are empty of face masks and hand sanitiser. The streets are eerily deserted, the wet markets have all but closed, and schools are cancelled until further notice. It honestly feels a little apocalyptic – and quite scarily is beginning to resemble the plot of sci-fi hits like Contagion and Pandemic. Countries are literally closing their borders, Australia has just evacuated 300 citizens via a special charter flight for $1,000 a ticket from the centre of the outbreak, and people are panicking. Stock markets are plunging every minute.
But, just like the West Nile virus of ‘99, the SARS epidemic, Ebola and and Zika virus, Coronavirus will very likely end before things get too much worse, killing only a small percentage of those infected. SARS killed just 10% of those who were infected with the respiratory illness, and chances are Coronavirus will be much the same. We hope.
The flu, on the other hand, kills at least 25,000 a year, and up to 65,000 on a bad year. There are around 5 million cases worldwide annually. The flu is a far more infectious and deadly disease but it is familiar, which is why we aren’t all in a panic over it and also perhaps explains why we tend to forget to get our flu shots every year, while we are absolutely desperate for the medical world to create a Coronavirus vaccine. It also probably explains why the WHO aren’t organising emergency conferences to deliberate over how we can minimise influenza risks to the public.
The thing is, we aren’t just working ourselves into a panic. Companies will get caught up in the inevitable fearmongering too, and will lose out on profits as a result. Already, companies are realising that a coronavirus outbreak in China could disrupt supply chains as the factories that develop the majority of the world’s products – from the world’s best CBD private labels to the mobile devices we use each and every day – and the shops that sell them shut up shop until further notice. H&M has already claimed that the closure of 45 of its stores across China has hurt sales in January, and Japan Airlines Co has shared that a quarter of its reservations for China flights were cancelled in the past week.
Let’s play this out and re-evaluate once things have calmed down a bit. My guess, however, is that this will be another SARS episode and not worth nearly as much of our attention as we should be paying to influenza.