When in danger
Or in doubt,
Run in circles,
Scream and shout.
The world is not quite taking this famous advice for the coronavirus – but almost. In my last column, I said there was a promising calm and lack of hysteria over coronavirus. The next day there were pandemic headlines in every newspaper; there were pictures of empty shelves in supermarkets and people with face masks; there were reports of panic buying of bread, lavatory paper and hand sanitizers. Stock markets crashed. Governments declared states of emergency and shut down travel, gatherings, education and business. Never in history has so mild a disease caused such consternation.
This is a tremendous tribute to advances in medical science and vast improvements in human welfare in the last few decades. In any previous age, coronavirus would have been insignificant compared with other diseases at the time. It would not have been noticed and would have had no effect on the economy. Now the measures taken against it are devastating the world economy. We must ask this question: which is worse, which will cost more lives – to do something about coronavirus or to do nothing?
Coronavirus is a bad flu – but incomparably milder than the terrible Spanish Flu of 1918. People infected might get ill, in which case some (the overwhelming majority) will recover completely in a few weeks, and some (a tiny majority, mainly old and sickly) will die. Although the disease is mild, it spreads quickly, by airborne droplets.
Politicians have decided to act rather than not to act. This is to be expected. Politicians love causes and love reasons to extend state control. By acting, and by issuing solemn proclamations, they are seen as being statesmanlike. The media applaud them when they act. President Ramaphosa received his highest praise after his speech outlining the measures the government is taking against the virus (some sensible, some silly). If the government doesn’t act and a person dies of coronavirus, the victim could be readily identified, and the government would be blamed. If the government acts and a person dies as a result of the actions that shut down the economy and increase poverty and hardship, it would be difficult to identify the victim, and the government would not be blamed.
Here is the best argument in favour of the actions (quarantines, ‘self-isolation’, travel bans, prohibitions of large gatherings, closing of schools and universities). If there were no action, the disease would spread rapidly and soon there would be many people infected. The number of vulnerable people among them would be too big for the medical authorities to deal with: too few hospital beds, respirators and nurses. If the infection rate could be slowed down, the number of people infected at any one time would be low enough to deal with.
An additional argument applies in the northern hemisphere – but not, alas, in the southern. Temperatures above about 26 deg C seem to kill the coronavirus (outside of a victim’s body). The disease spreads more quickly in cold climates. Governments in the north hope if they can delay infections, the coming summer will slow down or stop the disease. Unfortunately the coming winter will speed it up in South Africa.
I sounded callous when I said the death rate for the disease seemed ‘only’ about 1% – because 1% of a very big number is still a big number. But the statistics are more complicated than this. I am sure the number of people who have been infected is much higher than the number who have been identified (about 250 000 worldwide), which means the death rate is probably lower than 1%. More important, the people who die are overwhelmingly old and weakened by other disease or infirmity. Lives and deaths have different values. My life is worth less than a man of 20. The death of a woman of 95, suffering pain and disability, depending on expensive life-support systems, has a different value from the death of a healthy woman of 28 who has just qualified as a doctor, with a life and career ahead of her.
South Africans are told to ‘self-isolate’. That’s fine for the rich who have been self-isolating for ages, as you can see on our highways, with single occupants in large cars. The rich live with small families in big houses, no more than two people to a bedroom and usually about two to a lavatory. But what about the poor, crammed into ghastly overcrowded trains or awful minibus taxis, sleeping in shacks, sharing beds, four people or more to a room and a hundred to one filthy latrine? How do they wash their hands ‘for 20 seconds’ when all they’ve got for clean water is a communal tap?
There is one thing we can be sure of. The actions governments have taken, which are shutting down business, trade, travel and education, cannot continue for very long – or else we’ll face a calamity worse than anything the coronavirus could cause.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR