We need to stand united in this time of crisis
As of this time the scariest virus ever known to the world -- coronavirus or Covid-19 -- is sweeping through over 124 countries, affecting close to 200,000 people and causing nearly 8,000 deaths.
It is difficult to say, however, whether the scare is more from its publicity than from the virus itself.
A pandemic of similar virulence that lasted from 2009 to 2010 was H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu. It affected an estimated range of 11% to 21% of the world population, killing about an estimated 150,000 to as high as 550,000 people.
A later research in 2012 by WHO put the actual figure of death at around 579,000. H1N1 originated from Mexico (reportedly from pigs) while the new Covid-19 originated in Wuhan, China (reportedly from bats).
By that comparison, Covid-19 has not reached the disaster level of H1N1. But H1N1 virus lasted nearly one and a half years; Covid-19 started in December 2019. So, judging by the last pandemic, we can reasonably expect (or fear) that the virus will continue to affect countries and people for some time. To me what separates the two deadly viruses is the scale of nonchalance and scare-mongering that has gone apparently hand-in-hand in the case of this new virus compared with its earlier cousin (not in viral terms, but in its spread among people).
Like all others who have lived through crises of epidemics we have not witnessed this degree of hysteria with coronavirus anywhere near the previous health related crisis or pandemic including the swine flu.
At the same time, we have not witnessed the same degree of lack of preparedness for this novel virus as was in the case of swine flu. I do not know if the hysteria was absent in 2009 because of preparedness by governments or because people were more mature in their response a decade ago than now.
Or is it because this time around there are more actors in the information media fuelled by the internet than before that feed the public and lead them to irrational behaviour?
It is good to be cautious and adopt healthy practices in times of a health threat posed by the likes of coronavirus or any other viral disease.
It is completely another, however, to lose one’s mind over the threat and take to extreme social behaviour such as stocking up on food and non-essentials unless one fears an imminent disaster above and beyond the threat posed by the disease.
And yet, from the news reports that I see every day about the spread of Covid-19 globally, I read more about panic buying of food items, sanitation devices (and laughably, toilet papers) than about how people are being treated and what preventive measures are being taken to protect people. It is not that the last items are treated less importantly by the media, but the coverage invariably is also on people’s reaction and behaviour that are beyond normal.
The hype and hysteria in the current crisis have a lot to do with what people these days heed to more than the established sources of information, which are the government and mainstream print and electronic media.
These sources are the internet-based platforms (YouTube, Facebook, TikTok, etc) that are unregulated, and easy to access self-publishing tools where anyone can publish anything they want.
Even though these platforms have their own rules, they have hardly any means to verify materials that are published hourly in the platforms.
Since publishing in these platforms does not cost people anything nor does it cost anything to view or read these (unlike the mainstream media), one can fill the pages with wild stories and videos that are not fact-based.
These irresponsible and unverified materials that pass for facts spread rumours and fears that feed people’s fears and apprehensions.
To conclude, however, that the current hysteria has been caused by social media alone would be wrong as this has also been caused by uncertainty and lack of preparedness by many governments to take cautionary, preventive measures and provide timely-advised information to people.
Unlike actions taken by government institutions in the US and European countries to inform people in advance on preventive measures after the outbreak of H1N1 (including developing a vaccine toward the end of 2009), most countries including the US were taken unawares, it seems, by the new virus.
They responded by stopping visitors from China as though the virus would need a visa to arrive in those countries. Many of the Covid-19 cases in countries outside of China were caused by community transmission rather than from visitors from China or other countries with mass infection.
Countries started to act only when the virus took a virulent form and attacked their own citizens. The unpreparedness was multiplied by lack of transparency in government actions as well as timely information to people.
In the US, there was initial denial from the highest office about the scale of risks posed by the virus and misinformation about preparedness. This was exacerbated by media reports on the vulnerability of health institutions in the face of a massive infection.
These left a free field for operators in social media to feed a frenzy on possible scarcity of food and essentials in the event that supply lines fail following a large-scale outbreak.
Fear is a common human emotion, particularly when it affects life. People behave in different ways in the case of fear. Some retreat, others behave aggressively to save their lives. Panic buying is probably a psychological reaction to this fear.
But it need not be so, when people are well-informed and well-assured of their safety. These two can only be provided by the government of each country. But these will be possible when the government has credibility and transparency.
It is difficult to say how long this wave of Covid-19 will continue and how many more people will be affected by the virus. What I can say for now is that in the immediate future this virus will be with us, and we have to work our way through it with palpable measures that mitigate panic and irrational behaviour.
These should be seen as adequate arrangement for taking care that our medical and health institutions are properly equipped to handle the sick, preventing further spread of the virus, and removing people’s anxiety about the economy.
As an example of inaction to stop Covid-19, I am quoting below a paraphrased version of a poem that once warned people how Nazism spread in Europe.
First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.
I hope our leaders in all countries facing this new danger will adhere to this warning.
Ziauddin Choudhury has worked in the higher civil service of Bangladesh early in his career, and later for the World Bank in the US.