Complex Made Simple

Has the world blown this Coronavirus outbreak out of proportion?

Flights are cancelled, factories are closing, businesses are sending their employees home - is the world overreacting to a disease that is less likely to kill you than the common flu?

Initial official figures put the Covid-19 mortality rate at 2%, though this differs according to age, gender and pre-existing health conditions It’s even said the outbreak could cost over $160bn or 4 times that of 2003’s SARS So, is the world's panic well-placed, and what will the lasting effects on the world be?

A day doesn’t go by without finding myself stumbling on a minimum of a dozen articles and news reports on the Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak that has taken the world by storm. Governments are cancelling flights from countries where the disease is rampant, such as China and Iran, while the medical industry celebrates the rush for hand sanitizers and face masks, the prices of which have significantly increased in recent weeks as the virus’s spread grows. In countries like Kuwait, however, the government is putting a swift end to these unethical business practices, shutting down any pharmacies that try to make a quick buck off of people’s health.

A superficial glance at the issue and the overblown reports you’ll hear in the media will have you believing the virus is the second coming of the infamous Black Death, which also started in China and took the lives of millions of people during the Middle Ages. The fact is, that couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

Unlike the Black Death, which resulted in the deaths of 30-50% of Europe’s population and lingered on for many years, the Covid-19 has only claimed the lives of 2% of confirmed cases, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), though this remains a preliminary number early into the disease’s life cycle. This percentage is shifting today, with 2,867 dead from a confirmed 83,876 cases, which means that the fatality rate is around 3.4% now, according to our rough calculations, so take this with a grain of salt. However, and according to official sources, this fatality rate differs based on gender, age, and pre-existing health conditions. Naturally, those with weaker immune systems and of older age are more susceptible to this respiratory pandemic. 

Now consider that despite all the reports we’re hearing on the news, cancer, diabetes and even the common flu claim more lives annually than the Coronavirus. 

Number of deaths before the age of 60 due to diabetes worldwide in 2019, by region (in thousands) Chart: Statista

Season flu, on the other hand, claims between 290,000 and 650,000 lives a year globally, according to the Guardian. Cancer kills nearly 10 million every year

Image: Abacaba’s YouTube Channel

By these numbers, you’re more likely to win the lottery than actually die by the Coronavirus. 

Now let’s compare it to the Swine flu virus of 2009, or the SARS outbreak of 2003 that’s most similar to the Covid-19. 

As we see in the video above that went viral (no pun intended) globally, while the Coronavirus has had a high rate of cases in a short time, it is much less lethal than the SARS virus of 2003, the MERS virus of 2015, and the Ebola outbreak of 2014. 

Given that both SARS and Covid-19 are part of the same virus ‘family’, i.e. Coronaviruses, it’s easy to be mislead into think that Covid-19 is as lethal as the infamous SARS virus. The truth is, they’re quite different, and the Covid-19 isn’t as lethal. What they share is that they both affect the respiratory system, with both being transmitted in a way that’s near identical to the way the common flu is transmitted: via respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Infected surfaces are also a source of contraction, especially when our hands touch those surfaces then come into contact with our eyes, nose, or mouth. While there’s still a lot to be learned about this paticular type of Coronavirus, most scientific organization agree on these means of transmission.

Why is the world panicking? 

So, given these numbers, why is the world in panic mode? Entire cities in China are under lockdown, with their citizens in home-quarantine. Many factories in the country have shut down, which has disrupted supply chains globally. Companies in all fields have cut earnings forecasts ahead for the coming quarters. Tech firms, aviation and tourism firms, hotels, agriculture companies, oil producers – the list is quite long. Stocks on Asian markets were slashed by 3% and Dow futures plummeted 400 points overnight on 24 Feb alone. 

It’s even said the outbreak could cost over $160bn or 4 times that of 2003’s SARS. 

“Globalisation in combination with social media amplifies [pandemics’] wider economic consequences,” writes Jeremy Warner for The Telegraph. “There is nothing quite so contagious as fear.”

So, why is the world panicking over a disease that’s much less likely to kill you than a car crash on your morning commute is?

Well, in short, humanity has had a rough history with plagues, pandemics and their ilk. Think the Black Death, the Spanish Flu and Ebola. It’s human to fear the unknown, and despite being similar to other diseases, the Covid-19 strain is a novel entity with little known about it. Therefore, it makes sense for governments and organizations to err on the side of caution. Better be safe than sorry and all that. 

So while the measures countries are using, such as China utilizing drones to usher people off the streets, or flights from certain countries being banned temporarily, might seem extreme, they are often necessary sacrifices to personal comfort and the economy for the greater good of the world. The true tragedy is when this leads to racism towards heavily infected countries.

In his article for The Telegraph, Warner does make a strong argument regarding the outbreak’s lasting effects: “Whether or not Covid-19 turns out to be the ‘big one’, what it has done is highlight the risks both of unfettered international travel and over-reliance on global supply chains. There is probably no turning back the clock on the first of these phenomena, but on the second there very much is.

“Renationalisation of supply, renewed localisation of production, and a decoupling of major economies from one another, these are likely to be the lasting effects of the virus. 

“For China, it is a particularly unhappy irony: the country that has benefited so much from globalisation has given birth to the virus that may start to kill it off.”