As I write this the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak has many unknowns, including the actual death rate. I have no doubt that many of those unknowns will be discovered; the fact that the genome has been sequenced (and shared) is a huge step up.
What intrigues me is the way that this outbreak has also acted as a lens on human nature. It’s underscored how inter-connected the world is these days. The fact that it spread so quickly from its putative origin in China’s Hubei province reveals the extent to which air travel intrudes into world activity; and that’s without considering the consequential effects of the clamp-down that followed. The fact that South Korean vehicle factories have had to stop production, for instance, because they rely on Chinese-produced parts, is just one example.
The other lens this event has cast on humanity as a whole is more subtle. It’s revealed a good deal about what we are as a species. What seemed to count, as soon as the news was broadcast, wasn’t the reality of what was happening, but fears about what might happen. These, as far as I can tell, then became the reality for many people. As just one example, where I am in New Zealand there was no possibility of the virus existing in January 2020; and yet supermarkets were stripped of gel hand-cleaner. One chemist’s shop I saw was rationing face-masks – and still sold out of their stock of 700 in just two days (I asked).
All of this is a rinse-and-repeat of what happened in the last few virus scares. A few years back there was a socially-mediated belief that a brand of anti-viral would be effective against a novel virus with flu-like characteristics. Instantly sales of the anti-viral shot up to the point where it had to be rationed, despite medical advice that it probably wasn’t effective, and that in any case most people would self-medicate themselves with it when they had a cold.
What counted – then and now – wasn’t the scientific reality but the way people felt; their emotional response to what was happening, and their fear of the unknown.
Mix that with social media, and the coronavirus outbreak has been a recipe for misinformation and scare-mongering. Almost any wild story or remedy, it seems, becomes credible to some people. I even had somebody comment to me that they were going to keep their throat moistened (with water) because this apparently reduced the chance of the virus sticking.
Again, it’s not the first time that wild ideas about diseases have gained social traction and credibility. And they often backfire. Back at the height of the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the scientific point that the virus had to be inhaled was extended into a preventative system in New Zealand by which people could breathe an aerosol of zinc sulphate, a period treatment for facial excema in cattle. This was popularly supposed to kill the flu virus in their nose and throat. Of course it didn’t. However, because these ‘inhalation rooms’ were communal public places, the virus was spread very effectively when panicked Kiwis flocked to them.
We must not underestimate the potential of a virus yet unfolding to science. Perhaps it will create a human tragedy to global scale, like the 1918-19 flu. We don’t yet know. Hopefully it won’t. However, as I write this, it seems to me that the greater immediate effect of COVID-19 isn’t the disease itself, but the world’s fear of it. That, in turn, is translating into behaviours that have real outcomes and effects. And, of course, there is a direct economic consequence of that – which I’ll go into next time. Watch this space.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020