The coronavirus vs. flu-as-usual

 [Note: this was written on Sunday, March 8th, four days before it appeared in the paper. It was of course–the tone and substance–immediately out-of-date.]

If the world has had a hard time getting sufficiently exercised about imminent climate disaster to do much of anything about it, not so about coronavirus.

As I write, panic seems to have seized the entire planet. Markets are tanking, airlines cutting back, the Louvre closed , South By Southwest, that very big deal event in Austin cancelled, Northern Italy closed until further notice.

If schools close, which is being talked about, how will the economy handle the elimination of that all important babysitting function?

Even the wealthy are suffering. “ The social calendars of the well-to-do have been thrown into disarray, as art festivals, luxury fairs and invitation-only retreats are postponed or canceled,” according to a New York Times blog. (But an upside: Gwyneth Paltrow seizing the fashion occasion with boutique masks.)

I admit it’s been getting to me. We’re scheduled to fly for a few days’ visit with a friend in the Bay Area but I’m beginning to wonder : do I really want to deliberately coop myself up with a bunch of people in a plane, only to end up 3000 miles closer to ground zero for this virus?

We wonder if a family reunion scheduled for early April will come off. And what sort of a reunion would it be given the advice of one cantagion expert in a recent news story to keep at least six feet from fellow humans?

As for the sudden emphasis on hand-washing, I found out a couple of days ago that washing your hands in a store bathroom is easier said than done. You do what you came to do and wash your hands with, soap and water (while singing Old MacDonald or some such ditty). But wait, how do you turn off the faucet without contaminating your hands again? OK, start again, grabbing a paper towel , which requires touching the delivery lever (more contamination) , wash again and use paper towel to turn off the water. Which contaminates the towel. Throw it away and grab another towel with which to deal with the bathroom doorknob. Hold onto that towel for exiting the store. Do not, whatever you do, buy anything . Money is always filthy lucre of course, and even a credit card is contaminated in the swipe or insertion.

Keeping from being infected by suspect surfaces could be a fulltime job all by itself. It would be easier to stay home.

But even as we are letting the threat of the pandemic change our lives, I’m not getting why the crisis mentality, panic, crisis mode for this when many stories one reads about the threat also include the information that it will probably not kill as many people as are killed in an ordinary flu season (12 to 60 thousand). Certainly at this point coronavirus deaths worldwide are a drop in the bucket compared to those numbers.

As has been repeatedly emphasized, although the ratio of deaths to total infected seemed at first much higher than the flu, that ratio has been going steadily down with more accurate reporting.

There are two questions here: why are we more concerned with this novel virus than with flu-as-usual? And why are we not more concerned with flu-as-usual?

I can say something about the latter question. Though I’m of the age group (old) said to be most vulnerable, like a lot of people I’ve never taken the usual sensible advice to get a flu shot. Part of that is a sense that seasonal flu doesn’t seem especially risky. The 12 to 60,000 annual deaths in the US from flu shocked me when I first heard it, for a disease I’ve lived with my whole life and had a couple of times. That’s the same number of deaths every year as Americans killed in the whole 10 years of Vietnam. But that makes the risk about the same as choosing to use a car to get around. Which most of us regard as a completely acceptable risk.

Is it possible that the crisis and all the damage being done to economies and lives all come down to the old saw“better the devil you know”–better the flu you know?

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