In contrast to prophets of doom, who get invited to Davos, asked to address the UN and are able to build entire careers around their scaremongering, there are few rewards for those who play down fears – even if they turn out to be correct. If there were, then perhaps I wouldn’t have to draw attention to this piece I wrote in the Spectator in September 2005 arguing that the H5N1 strain of bird flu had been hugely over-hyped and was unlikely to kill many of us.
At the time, the World Health Organisation (WHO) was predicting there could be up to 50 million deaths worldwide, and former government adviser on infectious diseases Professor Hugh Pennington was claiming that it could be worse than the Spanish flu of 1918. In the event, H5N1 went on to kill a global total of, er, 482 people. One doesn’t want to make light of those deaths, but as I pointed out in 2005, a million people a year were then dying of malaria and two million of tuberculosis – yet those diseases seemed to have disappeared from public consciousness in the West and certainly weren’t causing panic in Britain.
Yet nasty bugs derived from Chinese livestock markets never fail to whip up mass hysteria. As with H5N1, as with coronavirus. Perhaps wisely, given its past history of crying wolf over bird flu, the WHO has so far stopped short of declaring the latter a global emergency. But China is certainly in panic. The city of Wuhan, along with several others, has been cut off to public transport. Tourist sites have been closed, including, appropriately enough, the Forbidden City in Beijing. Newsreaders have appeared on screen wearing facemasks – just in case, presumably, one of their viewers coughs over the TV set. In Wuhan, health authorities have apparently set themselves the task of building an entire new hospital in under a week. And the panic seems to have spread to Europe, too, with airline passengers being scanned for signs of high temperature (which of course could have a hundred causes other than coronavirus).
Yet while all this has been going on, the virus has been proving itself pretty poor at killing its host. Up until Thursday pm 571 cases had been confirmed and a further ten in other countries. Of these, 95 were reported to be seriously ill and 17 people have died – most of them, it is reported, had pre-existing medical conditions. That is pretty mild compared with the worst flu seasons in Britain. By this stage of the winter two years ago flu was already reported to have killed 155 people.
As I wrote in 2005, the idea that a new strain of flu could kill as many people as the Spanish flu did a century ago ignores the vast improvements in palliative care since then. As you see in China, any patient with the disease is swiftly isolated; they are not left to be treated by their family. There are measures in place to stop infectious diseases spreading through hospitals and the world at large – even if, as in China, they are being applied somewhat excessively.
The real danger from coronavirus isn’t that it will cause mass deaths, but that it will cause economic harm as tourists cancel trips to China, and possibly even stop visiting Chinese restaurants and so on. But if it ends up killing significantly more than the 482 killed by H5N1 bird flu I will be surprised. The world might, however, be impressed if the Chinese manage to build their hospital in under a week – there might be a useful lesson for the NHS there.