All the Important People Survived

Normal years do not begin quite like that.

The release of a Bond film has been seriously delayed, and the South by Southwest festival has been cancelled. It seems that Hollywood, ever more risk averse and paradoxically efficient than government, is staking a good deal of its money on black.

An international football fixture has also been called off, as have a number of conferences and expos. The Olympics simply may not happen this time around.

What do the organisers of these events suspect, then?

And how do their views differ from the perspectives of the middle-aged people who, at roughly this time, have all decided to remember the Millennium bug – and remember its example with fondness and frequency?

I’ll leave those questions temporarily unanswered.

There’s a lot of discussion at the moment about panic buying: not just of toilet paper and soap and hand sanitizer – the sort of things it might always be good to have in and that some people may even have been prompted by recent events into remembering that they were running low on anyway – but now also of vodka, which a few have oddly alighted upon as a way to wash their hands.

Apparently it’s to do with the alcohol content. It’s cleaning. You dunk your hands in vodka, and the pathogens are killed. That’s nonsense, of course. Even high-proof vodka doesn’t come close in ABV to the alcohol in sanitizers.

But look, irrespective of the few who have been sent wild by stuff they heard on Facebook groups – and sent from there into the spirits aisle – doesn’t ‘panic buying’ resemble what might be called ‘stocking up’ if people wore less anxious expressions? Were there not an epidemic going on.

And with the self-isolations governments now recommend topping off at two weeks, and schools in Italy, Japan, and all manner of other places shutting – and ‘quarantine’ being a word close to hand in many countries; all that said, doesn’t trying to ensure you have a fully stocked set of cupboards seem not altogether insensible?

I wonder if the residents of those northern Italian towns under lockdown wish they’d gone to Tesco (or the northern Italian equivalent) before their lives were otherwise re-ordered.

Mania in the aisles left to one side, let’s turn to the flu.

‘The coronavirus panic is dumb’, tweeted car salesman Elon Musk. He would presumably resent it if one of his factories were shut down on account of a worker testing positive for the virus.

‘The coronavirus is quite simply, and almost exclusively, a moral panic’, writes Samuel Paul Veissière (‘Ph.D’) in Psychology Today, under the not-at-all panicked headline ‘The Coronavirus Is Much Worse Than You Think’. He would presumably resent it if that heading gave any reader the wrong impression.

There’s a strange leap of logic at work among views like that. The views of the people who urge calm not as a psychologically sensible tactic, but rather as the only response of someone who is right in the head.

It goes something like this.

What’s the point getting het up? Things will probably be fine. And anyway, you and I will survive. We’ll be fine. We’re here now, after all.

It’s the flu. People die every year from the flu. That doesn’t trouble you and it doesn’t trouble me. What’s for lunch?

So, let’s look at that thought.

It’s got some statistical backing. The fatality rate for COVID-19, even at its most alarming, is still shy of four per cent. More than the flu, but not species-threatening. (And that’s factoring in Italy, which has a higher than average complement of elderly people, and largely missing the vast numbers who may be entirely asymptomatic. Lucky them.)

So, by definition, most of us will make it out the other side. Even if the whole world gets the virus (which won’t happen), 96 per cent – and likely far more – of us will stick around.

And we all – or most of us, at least – like those odds.

Is that reason alone for optimism? And, more than optimism, are those numbers a recipe not for calmness and sense, but for airy dismissal of anyone concerned?

I’d argue not.

Those experts in viral disease who predicted an infection rate of between 40 and 70 per cent of our species were both quoted widely in the international press and pilloried for being so quoted. If one had not then revised his estimate down to account for more data (to a not unconcerning 20 to 60 per cent), it would have been slightly more possible to accuse him of trying to cash in his expertise for a form of notoriety which isn’t quite legal tender.

It would be easy to call Richard Hatchett a crank and a loon and an attention seeker – yesterday he called COVID-19 the most worrying pandemic of his career – were he the CEO of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, and were he also not trying to develop a vaccine for the virus because it concerned him so much.

So, that’s what some of the experts think. But we’re sick of experts. What about the coldest, hardest data there is – anecdotal evidence? My mates think it’s all a joke. Imagine wearing a mask! And washing your hands until they cracked and bled! Imagine not being sure you’d fight the thing off!

Well the anecdotal evidence of some would certainly be compelling – and pertinent to this situation. But unfortunately it can’t be gathered because the people in question are dead. There are 3,000 of them now – and there will be more.

They’d have something to say on whether this virus was a worry, no doubt. But they can’t because they’re not around any more. It seems insulting to say, but I may as well say it anyway – they would still be knocking about if the virus hadn’t appeared.

They may have been in ‘vulnerable groups’ – elderly or ill, or with weakened immune systems – but they were alive and now they’re not. Think for a moment. There are many in the former position – who are among the vulnerable – who may not wish, if it’s quite all right, to end up in the latter one.

So when we call all this a moral panic, and suggest that being concerned by events is what a stupid person might do, and suggest that real people, normal people, people in the here and now, those people are at vanishingly low risk because, hey, we’re chatting about it right this second, and people don’t just die like that after some pendulously ironic conversation about the potential cause of their death, right? – why not consider those who are dead now, who were alive less than three months ago, and who might otherwise have had some contribution to make on that score.

When this pandemic ends – and it eventually will – the percentage of dead will probably not amount to much. Either if seen as a proportion of all humanity, or even of the people who were officially infected.

That could lead – and almost certainly will lead – to a collective exhalation of breath, a cocky grin, and a sense either that that was a bullet dodged or, actually, all a bit of a fuss over nothing.

Let’s remember something. The world is very big and contains many people. A significant number of them can die without anyone else noticing, or the amateur statisticians being overly troubled. The total number of Spanish flu fatalities could be rounding error in the modern world. Within the margin of error when estimating the global population.

When all this is over – and it would be nice to be wrong, for the death toll not to increase, and for everyone to be home in time for tea – it might be good to bear in mind that though you were fine and, statistically, you were always very likely to be fine, quite a number weren’t.

Let’s not write their deaths off as a classic overcooked panic and a straightforward waste of all our time.

This piece was originally published at Correspondence, a new journal.

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