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Home >Elections 2019 >Opinion >Opinion | It makes no sense for us to panic over the coronavirus

For years now, many of us have been waking up every day and reaching for our phones with grim fatalism. Because we know at least half a dozen “good morning" WhatsApp messages with trite motivational lines and pictures of sunrises and flowers are waiting to ambush us. In the last two months, however, these have beaten a retreat before coronavirus-related stuff. They come at us through the day, with endless advice, scary numbers and wild predictions.

Half the world now knows that a 2017 Asterix comic featured a masked charioteer called Coronavirus, and is awestruck. But the writers were no Nostradamus, like some people believe. Coronavirus has been around for ever. The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and middle east respiratory syndrome (MERS) epidemics were caused by coronaviruses. Labels on disinfectants like Dettol and Lysol have been telling us for years that they kill coronaviruses (the common types). The Wuhan one is just a new strain of a well-known bug; experts call the illness caused by it Covid-19. In the age of social media, misinformation spreads a thousand times faster than the virus itself, and we are today addicted to forwarding messages to gain cheap popularity, and too lazy to spend two minutes to check if what we’re sharing is true.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has now declared an “infodemic" that is confusing people. Confusion spreads fear, which is a virus deadlier than the real one. Covid-19 has a mortality rate (MR) of 3.4%, and that too is due to the high death rate in Wuhan in the early stage of the outbreak (17.3%). It’s 5.8% in Wuhan today, and 0.7% in the rest of China. Compare that to the MR of SARS (10%) and MERS (34%), but the world wasn’t hooked on social media then, so no living in constant fear. Not a single child up to the age of nine has died from Covid-19, and the MR is very low for people below 60. It is only for elderly people, and even among them, those with prior lung conditions, that the MR is cause for worry.

As of 7pm on 7 March, 103,882 cases had been detected, with 3,522 deaths. Of these, 80,651 cases are in China, which also accounts for 3,070 deaths (but a huge chunk of them happened early on). India has had 33 victims, of whom three have fully recovered, and none of the others is critical. So what are we panicking about? Why are people buying face masks at six times their price on the black market? In fact, why are so many people everywhere wearing face masks?

Face masks will not protect you. Covid-19 is not transmitted via air unless someone who already has it sneezes or coughs in your face.

It spreads via surfaces, and if you are wearing a mask, it’s likely that you are pulling it down often, because you aren’t comfortable, or to speak. Every time you do that, you touch your face with your hand, and your hand could be contaminated because you touched a virus-live surface. Obviously you aren’t going to wash your hands first each time you pull at your mask. So, the masked man is possibly touching his face more than he usually does, and is more likely to catch the contagion! You should wear a mask only if you feel you may have caught the virus, so that you don’t spread it. On 29 February, the US surgeon general Dr Jerome Adams posted a tweet, which began: “Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS!"

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms are trying to fight the infodemic by directing users to official sources like WHO or the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), when they search for “coronavirus". Facebook fact-checkers are working overtime to take down content with misinformation, bogus cures or false claims. But these companies face an uphill task; they are battling their own algorithms, built to prioritize speed and engagement. By the time Facebook takes down a post, it could already have been shared thousands of times, and research proves that messages that stoke fear increase engagement and are heavily shared.

Yes, fear is the deadliest virus. But I find the coronavirus panic in India rather funny. Our bodies have one of the toughest immune systems in the world. We have grown up surrounded by so much filth and pollution that our natural resilience is much stronger than people in the developed world. The 2003 SARS epidemic spread to 29 countries across the world, killing nearly a thousand people, but the only three people in India detected with it recovered quickly. MERS didn’t even reach India, even though India-West Asia people traffic is very high. All the 327 Indians evacuated from Wuhan, when the MR there was at its peak, were free of any infection.

Here’s a statistic. In the US, 337,000 people died of the flu between 2010-11 and 2018-19—37,444 people per year. India saw 11,030 flu deaths from 2010 to 2019—1,103 a year, with more than four times the population of the US. We are built to last. So, please stop panicking, don’t waste your money on masks, but do wash your hands regularly (which most Indians anyway do before a meal). There are much bigger problems in this country you should be worried about. Meanwhile, keep those “good morning" messages coming. I love my daily morning ritual of deleting them.

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of ‘Financial Express’, and founder-editor of ‘Open’ and ‘Swarajya’ magazines

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