It's a funny thing mass hysteria, it often takes on subtle and multiple forms.
The onset of the Coronavirus has faced us with true pandemic management with millions being rendered on lockdown in various parts of the world in an attempt at containment. At home, hand gel and toilet rolls are vanishing off the shelves as people who feel they must do something, employ measures that are more emotional than rational at such a time. The easy conveyance of such a pathogen is the result of modern living. Indeed, the epidemiology of many ‘plague’ type scenarios through history has typically involved some form of exploitation of the animal world and the transmission of cross species pathogens facilitated by improved transport and communications. When one can traverse the world in a couple of days, a virus with a 14-day incubation, has an opportunity to truly get a hold.
That said, we have to keep a level head on the numbers. We should neither be complacent about worst scenario figures, nor panicked. Hundreds of thousands of people die each year as a result of seasonal flu. Around 50,000 people a year die across Europe as a result of gastrointestinal bleeds from the use of aspirin calculated to thin the blood to reduce heart attack risk. Half a million potential deaths were anticipated from BSE yet under 200 occurred. Yes, homo-sapiens are mortal and ultimately must succumb to something at some point and the numbers, when writ large across all populations, instead of being considered in the small scale of our own modest lives, can invoke panic of apocalyptic proportions. It is this fear, (one can only surmise, giving rise to the concomitant need for toilet rolls) that makes people seek certainty, when governments can rarely give this in an evolving situation.
Anyone who has read Albert Camus’ The Plague, will better understand the psychological adaptation that populations must undertake to accommodate unprecedented events that take their course and from which there are casualties and survivors, ultimately resulting in collective community action prevailing over individual concerns. With many shelves empty, we are far from there yet. Then we have those with religious zealotry who will see this as reflective of the end of the world and the virus itself in anthropomorphic form of one of the four horsemen! It’s a fierce mix. Add in our modern speed of communication and tendency for media hype of the news agencies who currently work less on fact and more on emotion and we have a white-knuckle ride ahead.
Whilst survival is assured for most, the social and economic effects may take years to assimilate. Our key substantive challenge remains that of capacity and overwhelm of key healthcare resources for the very sick during high demand periods. Something that will impact on all healthcare delivery, potentially producing a death rate that is not just from the virus.
One thing is clear, this virus has made humankind sign up for a refresher course in basic hygiene, wherein maintaining clean hands is the one key thing one can do to prevent viral transmission. It was ever thus. More E. Coli, Salmonella, Fecal Colophons and myriad other potentially disease-causing organisms are transmitted by poor hand hygiene than just about any other routine human practice. Equally, a key potential form of hand to face transmission is the modern mobile phone which can contain so much bacteria resident operating systems should perhaps give users periodic warnings!
Professionals, academics and others will document and learn from the Covid19 virus for years to come. A certain beer company may have record sales or possibly go bust simply from guilt by association. Markets will plummet and recover ultimately. Whatever happens, the message of ‘keep calm and wash your hands’ may be a truism but the learned lesson ‘keep calm and avoid complacency henceforth’, is probably more than many are prepared to countenance.
Statistically, viruses take their toll every day and if you are a victim or someone close to you is, that is truly a tragedy. Relatively minor increases in virulence can bring nations and economies to a standstill. We live longer than previous generations and depend more on health care systems that are now easily overloaded. The vulnerable need protection and help, without doubt. To make it all work there is a real need for each and every one of us to keep our feet on the ground and take responsibility for being part of a global community. One that can move pathogens around the world within a day. We need to increasingly recognise the need to be sensible about our lifestyles and behaviour, not just for the period of this virus, but every day of our lives. We have to face the possibility that with a warmer, moister, changing climate, this is not going to be an isolated event. Hysteria, blame and knee jerk theories in the moment will never be as effective as responsible, sensible, basic measures for all.