The recent outbreak of Coronavirus in China has seen a rapid spread of the contagion from East to West. Overreaction to this inevitable pandemic is not only logical but more than welcome.
The last couple of weeks have seen the birth of a new catchphrase in the mainstream media. The key phrase, one touted by many an expert, points to Coronavirus as being “no more deadly than the seasonal flu”. The seasonal flu on a yearly basis infects over a billion people and causes the deaths of up to 650000 people. We are talking here of a rate of far less than 1%. Conversely that means a survival rate of an extremely healthy 99%. And yet the Coronavirus-flu analogy represents a false comparison. Then the greater danger hidden in the Coronavirus is the lack of immunity present in the population: unlike the flu virus to which most people have experienced some form of exposure over a lifetime, the Covid-19 pathogen represents a new challenge, therefore it is realistic to expect that infections to the latter are likely to be somewhere in the region of 30-40% higher than with any influenza.
There are then other aspects that must be considered: there is a high risk of secondary health complications arising to those who have been infected such as pneumonia, not to mention the immense strain that health service will be under given the much higher infection rate. This strain in turn will have an effect on other services provided that will cause indirect deaths. Additionally we have seen several people in less vulnerable age ranges passing away. The traditional influenza is generally most dangerous to the elderly and new borns. This all gives a sense that we are not privy to the whole facts.
That the official line is not as trustworthy as we may presume and that some form of governmental disinformation is at play is apparent when observing how certain states have closed down entire cities and towns due to this outbreak, something that never happens with the seasonal flu virus. The closure of towns in Northen Italy, not to mention the closure of cities in Korea and China provide the most salient examples to date. Furthermore the Chinese authorities have disrupted global supply lines, by ceasing industrial production in the worst hit areas at a cost of millions and millions of dollars. Again, the seasonal flu has never induced states to halt manufacturing on such a level.
The Swiss epidemiologist Christian Althaus has also questioned the reliability of the official line and here his finger points not just towards China. In a recent interview with the Zurich based NZZ newspaper Althaus claimed that the Swiss ministry of health had suppressed information for over a week that the virus had moved beyond the confines of the Peoples Republic of China. It then also claimed that no new countries had registered cases when it was clear they had information coming from Iran that proved otherwise. Indeed a recent article on the BBC website claimed that analysts fear the outbreak could be 10 times higher than currently being reported. Here it is worth bearing in mind that infections are scalable given the nature of the virus and the fact that any person can become a superspreader.
There are several reasons misinformation can occur. Traditionally it is claimed that states do not want to cause unnecessary panic, especially to the point that the economy may be disrupted. With this in mind it is worth noting that we are currently on the brink of a global recession. It is ironic and somewhat alarming to consider that the source of the current crisis, China, was the key protagonist that helped stabilise the global financial system after the 2008 great recession.
Further sources of misinformation are more technical than ideologically driven. Then there is a lag in data reflecting identified cases, not to mention in identifying rates of mortality and morbidity. Another factor is presented by asymptomatic carriers of the contagion, that naturally remain beyond the scope for data collection. This final group represent perhaps the greatest threat of restricting the pathogens dissemination. Then temperature screening at ports, airports and other transit places will prove futile in preventing the spread of COVID-19. Overreaction is further encouraged with regards to the last point, but also when combining asymptomatic carriers with global transportation networks. One thing is beyond doubt that the connectivity, space and time compression associated with the nature of our globalised world, provide the perfect springboard by which localised epidemics became pandemics.
Here we become witness to how local risks invariably become global challenges. In this sense we not only see risks associated directly with contagions, but also in terms of the national economy, that has become over-dependent on global production lines. With these factors exposed we should act as nations to become more self sufficient. Coronavirus will, given time, be superseded by contagions that present a far greater risk to all matter of systems in the future.
Therefore practice makes perfect, we need to put in place strategies to deal not merely with the immediate crisis, but as a relay for future pandemics. We need a controlled panic, not just as a contingency to future global risks and for the well being of our species, but also to affect political change. The neoliberal, globalist edifice carries inherent danger, not merely from the standpoint of environmental degradation. Don’t let it slip anyone’s attention. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb put it:
When paranoid, you can be wrong 1000 times & you will survive.
If non-paranoid; wrong once, and you, your genes, & the rest of your group are done.
It's a yuuuge mystery that academics who deal w/risk, "rationality", subforecasting & superforecasting fail to get it.
— Nassim Nicholas Taleb (@nntaleb) February 24, 2020