Don’t believe the media panic about coronavirus

It’s less dangerous than you think


Collegian File Photo

By Greg Fournier, Collegian Columnist

If you have been following the news at all for the past few weeks, you would be forgiven for thinking a plague of biblical proportions has descended upon us. A novel coronavirus has been rapidly spreading throughout the globe, with most cases concentrated in China. The number of infections continually increases, accompanied by disease-caused deaths. The fast-spreading nature of the new virus has the world reeling in response.

Twitter, of course, only adds fuel to the fire. One recent viral tweet includes a close-up picture of a Chinese man saying goodbye to his wife as he departs for, what seems like, a sure death in the service of treating coronavirus patients in Wuhan. The doctor’s wife has tears streaming down her face. This image tugs at the heartstrings of even the most hardened viewers. It’s indicative of the general feeling of anxiety felt by many regarding the virus.

The panic seems to have also set in among many governments worldwide. The U.S. State Department “issued a travel advisory telling Americans not to travel to China because of the public health threat posed by the coronavirus.” This is a Level 4 advisory – the highest level that is “reserved for the most dangerous situations.” In Italy, “thousands of passengers had been blocked from leaving a cruise ship…for more than 12 hours over concerns that someone aboard might have had the virus.” This case ended up being “a false alarm,” which goes to show how seriously governments everywhere are taking this virus.

International organizations are similarly worried. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency over the coronavirus last week. As a result, “various countries have taken steps to close borders or cancel flights in recent days, and companies like Google, Ikea, Starbucks and Tesla have closed their shops or stopped operations.”

In doing the research for this article, I found myself being swept up in the paranoia. The circumstances seem never to have been more dire – and, since governments are reacting this way to the disease, shouldn’t everyone be concerned about it?

So far, the reality of the coronavirus is actually less serious than media reports would suggest. For instance, “‘the main reason for [the WHO] declaration is not what is happening in China but what is happening in other countries’…. The concern is that it could spread to countries with weaker health systems.” Though most of the confirmed cases have been confined to China, “declaring a global emergency allows the WHO to support lower and middle income countries to strengthen their disease surveillance and prepare them for coronavirus cases.”

Moreover, the symptoms of the coronavirus are relatively mild. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), “common signs of infection include respiratory symptoms, fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.” However, preliminary estimates of the death rate are around two percent. Compare that to SARS, an outbreak of which occurred in the early 2000s, which had a death rate of 9.6 percent.

The most astounding metric of this coronavirus is who is actually being infected. According to the New York Times, “an examination of the information provided by the [Chinese] government about the initial deaths show [sic] a disease that has thus far largely killed older men, many of who had underlying health problems.” Among the victims from the first few weeks, “the median age was 75.” Some of the underlying health problems included “cirrhosis of the liver, hypertension, diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.” Additionally, no deaths have been reported outside of China, and U.S. officials are confident that Americans are at low risk of being infected provided they have had no contact with people who have recently traveled to China.

It seems like every few years, a new disease rises from the ether and threatens our very way of life. The reader may recall Ebola, the virus from Africa that spread to the U.S. and caused a media panic beyond even that of the coronavirus. While Ebola actually had serious symptoms, the panic died down within weeks of the first reported case. Similarly, there was a seemingly very serious vaping illness that was sweeping the American youth at the end of 2019.

The coronavirus panic seems, to me, to be an overblown media spectacle, repeated every few years with new symptoms and a different origin country. I’m not sure if this happens as a result of newspapers feeling the need to attract clicks on their websites, or a general lack of due diligence on the part of journalists, or a genuine concern for people to be aware of the issue. Probably it is a combination of the three. Either way, this just goes to show that media consumers should be more skeptical of the bottom-line message being given to them – particularly when the news is apocalyptic in nature.

Greg Fournier is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @greg_fournier.