Chinese flu and the complacency-panic dialectic

Only after the Wuhan virus crisis is over, writes Dalrymple,

can a proper assessment of whether too much or too little was done to halt it be made. Since life is lived forwards rather than backwards, it is only with hindsight that what would have been the right response becomes clear; but if the epidemic has killed a large number of people, recrimination is almost inevitable.


who have never given a moment’s thought to epidemiology, are thrust into the rôle of expert and prophet, while having to keep an eye on the opinion polls. If they admit their ignorance, they are accused of lack of foresight and leadership; if they make definite pronouncements, they are soon to be contradicted by their opponents, if not by the facts.

Dalrymple notes that much is still unknown about Chinese flu and its mode of spread.

Even its fatality rate is unknown because many infections may have been without symptoms and not come to the attention of the health authorities. If this is the case, the fatality rate would be considerably lower than the 2% estimated, though it would indicate that the spread is more difficult to control. The old are more at risk than the young, as are those with pre-existing conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure. If a vaccine were developed but were initially in short supply, it is they who should be immunised first; but it is unlikely that one will be developed quickly enough to affect the course of the epidemic.

As in the Cold War,

we talk of containment rather than of eradication. Early hopes that the USA might be spared the epidemic have proved what they always were, illusory. It is not only goods that are globalised.

We are told to wash our hands often and not to touch our eyes or mouths. It is hardly surprising, says Dalrymple,

that such advice—no doubt good—should lead to panic buying. Staying home as much as possible is the best way of avoiding contracting the disease even if one knows no one who has it, and more people than ever can continue to work from home. But staying at home requires stocking-up of food and other necessities. Stocks of goods in supermarkets without re-supply are sufficient only for a few days even in times of normal buying. At the first sign of panic, it was obvious that the shelves would empty, which could only increase the panic. In Australia, 33 confirmed cases of the disease (of which only one was contracted in Australia)—that is to say one in every three-quarters-of-a-million of the population—has been enough to cause panic buying. There has been panic buying in the USA, where there has been one case for every 3.3m inhabitants.

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