Despite warnings from public health experts, many Americans are still skeptical of the coronavirus pandemic. Liam Glen writes on why, despite relatively few cases so far, the outbreak presents a major threat to society.
The outbreak caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 is already impacting society worldwide. Events are being cancelled, schools and workplaces are moving online, and people are being told to stay at home as much as possible.
For most people, this is a major disruption in their everyday life. And some are skeptical of whether it is really necessary. In the disease’s early stages, it was compared to past panics like Ebola – something that was devastating in the area where it broke out, but despite media alarm, never spread to the rest of the world.
Even as coronavirus becomes a pandemic, some still doubt that a dramatic reaction is necessary. The reported worldwide death rate of 3.4 percent is hardly a second coming of the Black Death, especially given that the statistic does not include all the people with mild symptoms who were never diagnosed.
In the United States, this dispute has taken on a political angle as President Donald Trump downplayed fears of coronavirus by comparing it to the flu. Indeed, coronavirus worldwide has been reported to have infected over 170,000 people and caused more than 6,500 deaths. Meanwhile, the most conservative estimates from the CDC say that between October 1, 2019, and March 7, 2020, the flu infected 36 million in the US alone and killed 22,000.
But there is a reason that epidemiologists are more concerned about this outbreak than any other in recent history. Due to the severity of its symptoms and the ease at which it spreads, coronavirus is a unique threat. If the impact so far has been comparatively small, it is only because the worst has yet to come.
An Exceptional Challenge
The death rate of a disease depends on many factors, so it is difficult to definitively measure. But coronavirus cases in China have proven far more lethal than flu cases in the US for all age groups, with a fatality rate of 2.3 percent versus 0.1 percent.
The only reason that it has killed fewer people than the flu is that it has yet to spread as far. Whether it will do so is an open question. The CDC admits that much about how the virus spreads is still unknown. But its worst-case models show that it could infect up to 214 million Americans and cause 1.7 million deaths.
The outbreak does not even have to reach this level to wreak havoc on the healthcare system. Italy’s roughly 17,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus, largely concentrated in the country’s north, have left many hospitals nearly unable to function. By contrast, the nation has no such problems with an estimated 5 million flu cases per winter.
This raises major concerns in the US. If coronavirus cases rise as rapidly as they have elsewhere, it could lead to a shortage of basic medical supplies like hospital beds.
Even beyond the healthcare sector, the coronavirus is creating chaos in the global economy. The full impact is difficult to predict, but it will only get worse the longer the crisis goes on.
With such high risks, “better safe than sorry” is the only correct approach. The worst-case scenarios are unlikely to come into fruition. And it is possible that things will even turn out better than expected. But if this is the case, it will only be because people took precautions and did their part to avoid spreading the virus.
Sacrificing for the Common Good
It is the duty of everyone to wash their hands, avoid crowds as much as possible, and follow any other advice from health experts. Even those who are not at risk of having severe symptoms from the coronavirus must do their part to protect the ones who are.
This is difficult for many people, but it is necessary. We are facing a unique situation where society cannot bear the burden of a major outbreak.
And yes, there are cases of undue alarmism. Hoarding supplies will have negative results. In addition, people should try to avoid extreme stress about a situation which they have no control over. Panic solves nothing, but proper precautions can ensure everyone does their own part to slow the virus’s spread.