Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2020/ COVID-19 Panic

COVID-19 Panic

News of the first coronavirus/COVID-19 infection in Waterloo Region has just hit. A woman on a plane from Italy got sick and then went to hospital. I guess it is time to start panicking, as if we were not being saturated with coronavirus news before.

It surprises me that I am not anxious about this. The Ebola outbreak hit me hard, and it was not as if anybody in Waterloo Region was diagnosed with Ebola. I guess it is because I associate this coronavirus with the flu, and I associate Ebola with a 50% mortality rate and bleeding out of every oriface of one's body. (There was another reason too, which I will not disclose here.)

As of this writing, we are guessing that COVID-19 is (a) more infectious and (b) more fatal than the usual flu. That is bad news, but the mortality rate is 2%, not 10% like SARS. (Come to think of it, I wasn't panicky about SARS either. Wow my phobias are inconsistent.)

Already there is a backlash chastising us for comparing the flu to COVID-19. Don't we know that the flu is much less deadly and less infectious than COVID-19? We should put our whataboutism to rest and be afraid!

Bah humbug. Comparing the flu to COVID-19 is not whataboutism. It is risk assessment. COVID-19 hits many of our risk buttons -- we are being flooded with news, so the availablility heuristic applies. It is acute and novel, both of which make us more frightened. We have somebody (namely the Chinese) to blame, which suits the "we have always been at war with Eastasia" narrative we have around the Chinese these days. I am not convinced that the panic is warranted, and I am pretty sure there is nothing I will be able to do if it is.

The ways we defend ourselves against COVID-19 are basically the same ways we defend ourselves against the flu, except there is no questionably-ineffective vaccine we can take for COVID-19 yet.

What really bothers me is that if COVID-19 is the superflu we are all doomed for the stupidest reasons. COVID-19 is spreading internationally because of air travel. But air travel is so sacred to us that the Bank of Canada is willing to drop interest rates (!) because of this scare. What does this air travel consist of? Vacations and business travel. Both of these make me angry, but business travel makes me angrier. We have videophones now, and email, and telephones, but this has only increased demand for business travel, not reduced it. Just as we think it is extra-special to send people handwritten thank you notes instead of emails, we think it is extra-special to go visit a business associate to close a deal when an email might suffice. It is absolutely true that email and video chat and phone calls are all low-bandwidth forms of communication that lose a lot of the nuance of body language, but you can be sure that even if we Holodeck conference calls we would insist on even more business travel, because getting on some awful airplane and flying across the country to meet a client is a sign of prestige. A lot of air travel is for prestige. We are pumping enormous amounts of CO2 into the air in order to burn jet fuel. And for what? For prestige. COVID-19 is an acute demonstration of the perils of air travel in a way that global warming is not, but you can bet that people are not putting off business travel in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus. When the real superflu comes, will we come to our senses? No, no we won't.

Another problem is that people in our culture insist on going to work when they are sick. They have to, because if they take days off they lose pay and get into financial trouble. So superflu it is! (It would be hypocritical of me to pretend I do not do this. When I taught in Winter 2018 I had the flu during my first lecture, although I had not realized it was the flu at the time. What was I going to do? Skip my first lecture of the term?) So if and when the highly-transmissible, highly-fatal superflu hits, we will all spread it to each other in our schools and offices. (I have written about this before.)

As mentioned in the linked article, the panic itself could kill us. The stories of people hoarding gloves and hand sanitizer are bad signs. If the fever pitch rises much more we could all be in trouble.

The panic around COVID-19 is making me grumpy, but maybe it is not misplaced. Sooner or later the superflu will come, and we are ill-prepared to deal with it. Our inability to contain COVID-19 is proof that we won't be able to deal with something even more serious.

Clearly I am not taking the threat seriously enough. Dying of respiratory illness is not a nice way to go, but it isn't the worst. I don't have steady work now, so nobody will miss me if I succumb. The worst part would be that my housemates would get sick, and that I won't be able to self-quarantine effectively.