JOHN CARLIN. The Mad Viruses

Mar 5, 2020

As in the case of Mad Cow’s Disease, if people believe there is a crisis, there is one.

I have been in bed with a classic flu for most of the week, envying those who have been lucky enough to succumb only to the coronavirus. According to what I read, most of the 98 percent of those infected who recover from the disease declare that their symptoms were slightly worse than having a mild cold.

An important doctor with the World Health Organization in Geneva to whom I made this observation did not accuse me of being flippant, as I expected, but he did warn me that the final verdict was yet to be known. “We don’t know in what direction it will evolve or how,” he told me. “There are some models that present very ugly scenarios. But we hope not.”

As long as the experts are not certain, I will give free rein to my natural mixture of optimism, scepticism and frivolity.

My impression is that the media (and financial) reaction to the coronavirus has been over the top and comes more from the shock with which we respond to the new and unknown than the real danger.

Today, we know that the flu currently inflicting me, kills about 400,000 people a year, at least according to the frivolous New York Times. The number of deaths caused by the coronavirus since it was diagnosed in China two months ago is around 2,800. The majority of fatalities have been people who are already sick or very old.

It would make more mathematical sense to quarantine the many thousands of European flu ridden people like me than the relatively few (41 here in Spain as I write) in the Old Continent that have contracted the new virus.

There is talk in England of cancelling football matches. Well, logic would say that given the increase in cases of flu in winter, all European football matches between November and March should have been cancelled years ago. And all flights, and all travelling.

I still hope to recover in a few days, or at least in time for a trip I have scheduled to Rome in a couple of weeks. Although Italy is where the coronavirus has hit hardest in Europe, I will not change my plans.

Unless they put all of Italy under quarantine or the health authorities forbid my entry, I will go. And with a special bonus since it can be assumed that the general nervousness caused by the coronavirus will significantly reduce the number of tourists in the former imperial capital. Hopefully, instead of queuing to see the Sistine Chapel I will be granted a private visit.

Although I do not want to see the Pope, it won’t happen anyway because it seems that a disease very similar to mine has prevented him from celebrating Mass in public. The funny thing is that although he did not stop coughing and blowing his nose during his last appearance before the crowds, he did not hesitate to shake hands with several of the faithful, and, according to journalists present, he even kissed a baby.

Will the coronavirus be more contagious or dangerous than the Pope’s mild cold?

Only God knows.

We will see if the “very ugly” scenarios referred to by the WHO doctor come true. As an eminent virologist said in an interview published this weekend in the Financial Times, although the mortality rate of the coronavirus is only one percent, if many millions are infected we will be talking about many deaths.

What is also true is that 40 million people will have to be infected by 2020 to reach the annual number of fatalities caused by the flu. This is neither Ebola, nor AIDS, nor malaria, nor bubonic plague. It reminds me more of mad cow’s disease.

Most of those who are old enough to suffer the symptoms of the coronavirus will remember the panic that spread in Europe after the outbreak in England at the end of the last century of the disease known as bovine spongiform encephalopathy, supposedly caused by eating meat from infected cows .

English scientists, experts on the subject, appeared on the BBC and predicted more than one hundred thousand deaths. There was a crisis for the simple reason that if people believe there is one, there is one. Meat consumption fell 30 percent in Europe. It fell more in England, where the massive burning of cows was such that half the country smelled like a barbecue.

In the end there were 81 British dead between 1995 and 2001, 13 or 14 a year. Sad and unfortunate, but statistically almost irrelevant, since the annual death toll in the United Kingdom at that time was around 700,000. The disproportion between hysteria and reality was remarkable.

According to figures from the 2000 Royal Society for Statistics, the risk of a person in the UK dying in a car accident was one in 8,000. The risk for mad cow’s disease was one in 50,000. An English farmer stated, rightly, that “it was much more dangerous to drive to McDonald’s than to eat a hamburger.”

I suspect that even in China, where the coronavirus has claimed more lives than anywhere else, statistics will show that crossing the street, for example, or riding a bicycle carries more risk than falling victim to the pandemic of which everyone is speaking.

The fear that causes a phenomenon like the coronavirus ends up not being based on anything objective. As an expert on risks told me during the mad cow’s disease, it depends on what one chooses to believe.

Given the information that we have to date, I choose to believe that precautions must be taken, such as not kissing friends who have just been on vacation in China, and if I get it, I will lock myself up at home drinking many hot teas with lemon, as I have done in my flu filled week. And that’s it.

We are all going to die, hopefully old, and in that case perhaps of the coronavirus. Meanwhile, let’s enjoy and worry about what we really have to worry about. Don’t worry, as someone said. Be happy.

John Carlin is a journalist, author and columnist for both English and Spanish language newspapers. His main areas of interest are international and national affairs, food and football. He is the author of a number of books about Nelson Mandela, and writes regular columns for La Vanguardia and Clarín, (Argentina). This column appeared in Clarín, Argentina, on 22 February 2020, and is translated by Kieran Tapsell,


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