China flu and the persistence of illusion

The Wuhan virus is of relatively minor consequence for the mortality of the world population

Follow the science.

On this view, writes Dalrymple, science

speaks with one voice, ex cathedra. It lays down doctrine that humanity, most of which is not scientifically minded, must humbly accept. Neither the world nor science is like this.

Epidemiology, he points out,

is not only an inexact science but can be a powerful tool for the regulative bullying of the population by ­bureaucracies.

The Wuhan flu is

not the Black Death, which killed between a third and a half of the population of Europe. The 1957 Asian flu was said to have killed up to 2m people and the 1968 Hong Kong flu 1m, yet they have passed from collective memory, perhaps without having entered it.

The illusion that the risk of epidemic default on mortgage obligations had been eliminated

There is an increasing unfamiliarity with death as the natural end of life, and

assuming that this is an epidemic of relatively minor consequence for the mortality of the world population, the panic must be in part because of the apocalyptic nature of death from the disease.

The China pandemic

will no doubt be mastered in time; there will be a vaccine, perhaps a treatment. But it will have dented mankind’s illusion that it has everything under control — give or take a blip — on the upward ascent to a life without suffering, the unpleasantly untoward, or the unforeseen.

Dalrymple reminds us of the time before the collapse of Lehman Brothers,

when mathematicians claimed to have developed a model that eliminated the risk of epidemic default on mortgage obligations. This proved illusory and was always foolish; but it suggests that the illusion of control will return soon enough, once the epidemic is over.

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