Fear is a powerful motivator. It can be based on facts. It can also be based on rumor, misinformation, false parallels, and misunderstanding. In times of doubt, popular misconceptions proliferate, seeding a vicious cycle as a lack of knowledge creates hysteria. China’s Wuhan Coronavirus is new, serious, and contagious. Economists expect China’s 1st quarter growth to slow. Trade with China will falter until the virus is fully contained. But this is not the end of the world. Hard facts offer perspective.
Last week, as China quarantined Wuhan, diplomats departed, airlines suspended flights, passengers got fever-tested, supply chains got disrupted, and the stock market dropped 600 points, another universe of data was accumulating. That data suggests that, unlike similar viruses, Wuhan Coronavirus is not the end of the world, not another Black Plague. Keeping perspective is important.
Here are the facts. Two dangerous Coronaviruses, both affecting respiratory health, have emerged in recent decades. SARS originated in China in 2002, MERS in Saudi Arabia, 2012. Both spread quickly by unrestricted air travel.
That is why U.S. Government officials, from the State Department and Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), have sprung into action. That is why their goal is to contain and extinguish this Coronavirus early. To do so, they must raise an alert.
The World Health Organization has also offered insight, including statements that “mild symptoms” similar to a cold are triggered, which “could lead to pneumonia and breathing difficulties” for older people with pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease. However, the disease is “rarely” fatal.
The containment process generally works. For the record, as Mayo Clinic reports, “there has been no known transmission of SARS anywhere in the world since 2004.” Separately, MERS in the U.S. was limited, causing zero deaths. Transmission person-to-person is difficult, and CDC reports MERS “represents a very low risk to the general public.”
What about this Wuhan Coronavirus? Latest data from CDC, early February: “This virus is NOT currently spreading in the community in the United States.” As of February 4, 11 cases have been identified in the U.S., all quarantined, all travelers returning from abroad. No one has died in the United States.
Moreover, even deaths in China are minimal and should be kept in perspective. As of February 4, China had identified roughly 20,000 cases. Of the total, 425 infected persons have died. While infection reports continue to grow outside China, only two deaths are reported outside China. For perspective, only 2.1 percent of those infected have died.
By way of comparison, the common flu has this year killed 10,000 people, with 180,000 hospitalized across every state, according to ABC News. Automobile accidents claim roughly 1.25 million American lives annually, with another 20-50 million injured; experts attribute 3,287 deaths each day to automobile accidents.
Another measure of comparative risk might be death from an overdose of legal and illegal narcotics. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, 130 Americans overdose on opioids daily, resulting in more than 47,000 opioid O.D. deaths in 2017.
Even esoteric afflictions outdistance risk of death from the Wuhan Coronavirus, based on credible data. An estimated 1,109 deaths between 2000 and 2017 resulted from bee stings, 200 from peanut allergies, and 450 from “falling out of bed.”
More seriously, odds of dying from heart disease are one in six, cancer one in seven, and no one has died in the United States from Wuhan Coronavirus. Notably, no one died in the U.S. from SARS or MERS either.
So, will this “novel” virus affect the Chinese economy, Asian regional economy, and the U.S. economy by triggering temporary – and sizable – reductions in economic activity, including trade and tourism? Yes. Will it create a permanent trade readjustment, taper, gap, or decline? Not likely. While China lays a bigger global role in 2020 than in 2012 or 2002, this will pass.
None of this is to say that President Trump’s preventive Executive Order 13295, issued last week in consultation with Health and Human Services and the Surgeon General, was not wise. It was wise, as are flight restrictions tied to China, airport symptom testing, and precautionary quarantine provisions. As the adage goes, always better safe than sorry.
But a dose of realism is comforting. Temporary restrictions on travel to and from China, State Department warnings and occasional quarantine to assure no person-to-person transmission are wise. But as Business Insider acknowledged: “The Wuhan Coronavirus seems to have a low fatality rate, and most patients make full recoveries,” despite all the “panic.”
In short, fear is a motivator but can be overplayed and misplaced, becoming an outsized worry or distraction. Federal precautions surrounding the Wuhan Coronavirus are worthwhile, just as putting on a seatbelt, getting a flu shot, carrying an EpiPen are worthwhile precautions.
That said, despite media hype, this is not the end of the world, onset of some biological warfare epidemic, or Black Plague. The best advice, as always, is to keep perspective and enjoy the day.