The Coronavirus Is Not Overhyped

The virus is a serious issue and should be treated as such

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Photo by 🇨🇭 Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash

I have read a few articles recently downplaying the Coronavirus and one that stated the media is overhyping the situation.

If you understand risk, maths and how viruses spread you will understand that this is nonsense. The coronavirus is a deadly disease that needs to be taken seriously.

Even if you consider yourself to be a healthy individual and unlikely to die from the disease, the risk it poses to society on so many levels means you should take precautions not for your benefit, but for others.

The risk to the individual may be low, but the risk to society is huge. Viruses are not like normal diseases. You cannot compare them with cancer, heart attacks or diabetes. None of those diseases is contagious.

A virus that can easily spread from person to person and which we currently have no vaccine for will wreak havoc with healthcare systems.

The media coverage may seem excessive and there’s no doubt the mainstream media loves nothing more than a crisis, but this is an unprecedented situation. Countries around the globe are locking down their citizens and closing their borders.

Would they be doing this if the virus wasn’t a threat if it really was overhyped? Of course not, they recognise that if they don’t act now, the loss of lives will be incredible.

In this article, I want to set out why the coronavirus should be taken seriously and anyone who is not currently taking it seriously should start doing so because whether you like it or not, you will be forced to take it seriously sooner or later.

Home Front

The situation in England, where I live, is becoming starker by the day. Cases are rising at an exponential rate, as are deaths, which will eventually lead to stringent measures to flatten the curve.

One of the problems with simply listing numbers is that they only tell part of the story. If you state that there have been 2,600 cases so far, most people’s instinct is to think, well, that’s not a lot.

On the face of it, it isn’t. In a population of 65 million, it represents a minuscule fraction of society. But viruses are not static, they are non-linear. Once you reach a critical mass, the numbers escalate until measures are introduced to slow the tide.

The only way that you can appreciate the reality of the situation we face is by looking at the numbers on a graph.

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Graph courtesy of UK COVID-19 graphs. Data from Public Health England.

As you can see, the cases start at a slow trickle with a few people becoming infected daily. Then at a certain point, cases take off and skyrocket. This is because of simple maths. Viruses are contagious and grow exponentially.

The more people that are infected, the more people they can infect themselves. What makes this particular strain of Coronavirus so difficult to contain is that the virus can incubate for up to 14 days before showing symptoms.

You could be walking around for two weeks infecting hundreds of people with no inclination whatsoever that you are infected.

With this in mind, the numbers we see on the graph are behind what is happening in reality. More people will be infected and the curve should be a lot higher than it is.

This is is a problem in the UK for a simple reason, the NHS only has 4,000 critical care beds for the whole population. Once the cases start mounting, and they will, you quickly get to a point where the health service cannot cope with the sheer number of cases.

This results in doctors having to make the horrible decisions about who lives and who dies. This is what’s happening in Italy right now. As well as this, you have several indirect consequences because of the spread of the virus.

Doctors and nurses are at severe risk of catching the virus. Once they become infected, there are fewer people to treat the ever-increasing number of patients stretching the health service to breaking point.

With businesses closing to stop the spread of the disease, they face the risk of permanent closure unless the government steps in to help them. Supply chains are stretched as people rush to the supermarkets to stock up on goods. What happens when the workers that prop up those supply chains become ill too?

What happens the people that collect our rubbish fall ill too? What about the workers in supermarkets who replenish the aisles every day? All of these jobs are vital to the smooth running of the economy and society. You don’t think about how vital they are until you’re in a situation such as this when everyone is scrambling to buy toilet roll.

If the numbers of cases continue to rise, this is what will happen. Services that we take for granted will become stretched to breaking point. The virus is not a linear event that only affects the people’s health, it affects the health of the nation and its vital infrastructure too.

When people say the coronavirus is overhyped or dismiss it as another virus, this is the key issue they are neglecting to realise.

The Maths Never Lies

As of writing this article, over 215,000 people have been infected worldwide which has resulted in over 8,800 deaths. This may not sound like a lot, but that the number of infected people worldwide could be above 500,000, and even1 million, by the end of March.

The more people that are tested, the higher the number will go. Unfortunately, the fatalities will increase too, as health services across the globe are stretched to the limit.

In the UK, the numbers could increase at a rapid rate. Mass gatherings were not banned until a few days ago, while last week, the popular Cheltenham horse racing festival was attended by tens of thousands of people. If a few who attended had the virus, it could have spread like wildfire through the crowds.

This was proven in South Korea, where one person infected thousands of people because she socialised whilst she had the virus. South Korea has managed to stabilise the number of cases in the country, but this incident shows even one person can spread a contagious to a wider proportion of the population.

The other concerning aspect of the virus is its high mortality rate. As Tomas Pueyo states in his fantastic article, the fatality rate for the virus is ~3.8%-4%. This figure does vary depending on the country, with Italy’s rate between 6–8%.

Regardless, this fatality rate is high compared to other pandemics in the past and similar to the 1918 Spanish Flu, which had a fatality rate of 2–3% and killed between 20–100 million people. It’s unlikely those figures will be repeated due to improvements in healthcare and the fact the virus spread at the end of the First World War. However, if not contained, this virus will result in a lot of deaths.

The good news is that 80% of cases are mild, but that still leaves 20% of serious cases. Say, a country records 100,000 cases in total, that’s still 20,000 people who will need to be hospitalised. If this happens in the UK, where we have established there is a shortage of critical care beds, you have a shortfall of 16,000 beds.

How will these people be treated? What happens when the doctors and nurses treating them become infected? It’s these issues which make the virus a huge issue, as it strains a system, which is already strained despite the virus, closer and closer to breaking point.

If countries don’t apply a lockdown scenario, people with mild symptoms could be tempted to leave the house, potentially others, which leads to further strain. This is why containment is necessary. It gives the health service a chance to catch up with the curve and not be overwhelmed by an ever-increasing stream of cases.

Reality strikes

The Coronavirus is an obstacle that we have not faced in the modern world. We’ve known something like this has been coming, but we’ve been caught unawares. Humans are terrible at considering long-term risk and even worse at understanding the risks involved with non-linear threats.

It’s easy to say you you’ll be fine, so there’s no need to worry, but it’s the effect the virus will have on society that is key.

The virus affects more than your health, it disrupts health services, businesses, supply chains and schools. Numerous issues that result from the virus that we have to deal with as well as the virus itself. For myself, this resulted in me realising the fragility of self-employment.

We have become complacent in the wake of recent outbreaks such as Sars, Swine Flu and Ebola which have not affected the majority. Now we see our ancestors feared pestilence and the spread of disease. It upends the norms we take for granted.

This pandemic is a grey swan, a known unknown. Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. It’s easy to see the non-stop media coverage and say it’s been overhyped. It’s easy to look at how many people recover and say it’s nothing to worry about, but that is one aspect of how the virus affects our interconnected world.

People will lose loved ones and jobs because of this virus. Businesses will collapse, the stock market has tumbled. Coronavirus could shift the political landscape, it could lead to governments acknowledging they need to invest more in public health care and provide a greater social security net for their citizens.

This virus is not overhyped. Years from now, historians will look back at this event and categorize in similar terms to 9/11 and the Second World War. An epoch-defining event that realigned life and global politics.

Whether they applaud us for taking quick and decisive action or criticise us for burying our heads in the sand, is in our hands now. Events are out of our control, but we still possess the ability to choose how we respond.

No one person can remedy the issue we face, it takes collective action by all of us to tackle this virus. As Zeno, the founder of the Stoic school of philosophy said:

“Well-being is realized in small steps, but it is no small thing.”

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