Coronavirus hysteria occurs because we confuse precaution with risk. We see Chinese cities being cut off, people being quarantined, factories closed, the streets emptying (save for a few people in face masks) and we interpret this as a sign of grave and imminent danger. If China had not taken such dramatic steps to stop the disease, we wouldn’t be half as worried.
There seems to be a distinct strain of Sino-phobia in our attitude towards infectious disease. Every novel disease that comes out of China instantly seems to gain the description ‘pandemic’ — even when diseases such as Sars and H5N1 avian flu hardly justify being called an ‘epidemic’. Covid-19 seems to fit neatly with our fears about Huawei spying on our phones and Chinese manufacturers stealing our jobs. Diseases from elsewhere don’t excite the imagination nearly so much. There was a brief flurry of concern in 2014 when Ebola, vastly more lethal than Covid-19, emerged in West Africa (it has since killed 11,310 people globally). But if we are going to worry about any infectious disease, it ought to be tuberculosis. The World Health Organization reports there were ten million new cases worldwide in 2018, 1.45 million deaths, and 4,672 cases in England. But no one ever bought a face mask because of that. How many people even know that the epicentre of tuberculosis is India, with 27 per cent of cases globally?
There is something more to the Covid-19 panic. It is the latest phenomenon to fulfil a weird and growing appetite for doom among the populations of developed countries. We are living in the healthiest, most peaceful time in history, yet we cannot seem to accept it.