Opinion: Coronavirus paranoia is outpacing its actual danger | Opinion | DW | 28.01.2020

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Opinion: Coronavirus paranoia is outpacing its actual danger

The fear of viruses, just like the price of shares, often has less to do with reality than with irrational expectations. The latest coronavirus epidemic will taper off, just like those before it, says Fabian Schmidt.

No doubt, the news of an impending epidemic is scary, and the novel coronavirus (nCoV) appears to be spreading rapidly with the number of deaths rising continuously. China, where the virus emerged, has implemented drastic measures and placed no fewer than 43 million citizens under quarantine. These steps will surely be effective in stopping the nCoV outbreak

And if the Chinese government actually succeeds in maintaining the quarantine over Hubei province and other affected regions for several weeks, the epidemic might end sooner than expected. 

Infected with fear

But the fear of viruses, just like the price of shares, often has less to do with reality than with irrational expectations. Face masks, worn by those hoping it will protect them from an infection, are manifestations of an irrational gut feeling. Those wearing them have, in other words, become infected by fear.

What is clear is that the Chinese government's determined steps to stop the nCoV outbreak are proving effective. And around the world, fear of the new coronavirus is far outpacing its actual dispersion. 

Let's take a deep breath

Maybe we should all put aside the face masks, take a deep breath and look at the facts: coronaviruses have been considered relatively harmless pathogens that tend to cause common colds.

DW's Fabian Schmidt

DW's Fabian Schmidt

But coronaviruses are also very adaptable and can mutate into highly dangerous pathogens, as we witnessed in the twenty-first century. The SARS and MERS epidemics — each caused by coronaviruses transmitted from animals to humans — changed the public perception of these pathogens.

Admittedly, both strands were rather dangerous. SARS killed one in ten individuals infected by the virus who went into hospital care. And the MERS virus, transmitted from camels, killed one in three infected individuals who were treated in hospital.

Take official figures with a pinch of salt

It later transpired, however, that many more people on the Arabian Peninsula had become infected with the MERS virus without ever developing particularly serious symptoms or requiring medical treatment. China's nCoV epidemic could well prove similar.

Currently, the number of nCoV patients and fatalities is rising rapidly. The virus is spreading fast. Yet like all epidemics, the infection rate will eventually taper off because those infected by it will have become immune. And, judging by official figures, only one in 40 nCoV cases has so far been fatal.

It also needs to be said that many Wuhan residents infected with nCoV are simply staying at home to recover, as so far no effective drug treatment exists. So while there are individuals seeking hospital care due to serious nCoV symptoms, many more unreported nCoV cases presumably exist as well, which do not show up in the official stats.

Focus on flu prevention

If all these harmless cases were taken into account as well, it might indicate that nCoV is no more dangerous than an ordinary flu that spreads around the globe each year, killing thousands or tens of thousands of people. Right now, after all, it is once again flu season in the Northern Hemisphere.

So maybe we should stop worrying about nCoV. And instead focus on not getting the flu, by ensuring we thoroughly rinse our hands after traveling on public trains and buses, or touching door handles in public buildings. No need for a face mask, either. But you might want to get a flu jab, actually.

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