Fear is infectious. We love to spread and hear fear and rumors the way we love ghost stories because they thrill us. Ghosts instill into us a romance of fear and dread. A girl, hearing a ghost story, would race into her mother's arms for a hug and have all her fears assuaged. Wrapped inside a blanket on a winter night she insists for more and more ghost stories, stories about a demon who snaked around in villages at night looking for small children to eat. No wonder 'Thakurmar Jhuli', a collection of Bangla folklores mostly on ghosts, by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder, is perhaps one of the most read books in our country. Children and old folks alike are reading this book for more than one hundred years.
It is the fear of death from a vague and terrifying new illness called Covid-19 that is spiraling into panic, paralysing the world as the microbes wearing a garb of a ghost are spreading well beyond China. It's not the illness itself but the ill-considered way the frightened world of social media has been responding to it. Online world may give rise to dangerous chaos and scepticism, and that in the event of an actual pandemic, a large number of people, especially in poor countries with poor health systems, may delay treatment and die by not believing the science. Emotional contagion, digitally enabled, could be the greatest killer.
Coronavirus has killed more than 2,800 people worldwide, the vast majority in mainland China. Attempts to keep the virus contained within Asia have run their course. There have been more than 83,000 global cases, with infections in every continent except Antarctica. More than 50 countries have now reported cases of coronavirus. Belarus, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Nigeria all reported their first cases. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the outbreak has reached the "highest level" of risk for the world, with the director-general warning it can go in "any direction." Major stock indexes in the US recorded their worst week since the 2008 financial crisis.
The WHO has not yet pronounced Covid-19 a pandemic though the disease has already affected the whole world. WHO is still hesitating to use the P-word. An announcement of a pandemic would frighten people, paralyse decision making and give an ominous signal that there is no further possibility of containment.
Some people--not scientists--are even telling that coronavirus is a unique cold, and that the virus may be as lethal as the Spanish Flu. Who knows!
Spanish Flu of 1918-19 started as a rather mild case of the flu with few deaths. Then a second wave hit and that killed an estimated 50 million people. There were, we should note, much fewer people in the world then.
Covid-19 is a new strain of virus scientists know little about. Maybe it will be contained quickly or maybe not. The horror point is that this virus which has already mutated from animals could mutate again. And like the second wave of Spanish Flu it may kill millions. In that event, the world will be confronted by not one, but two crises: a global health disaster and a huge economic recession.
It would, however, be foolish and too early to push the panic button at this moment. There has been considerable over-reaction, indeed bordering on mass hysteria, over the coronavirus. The number of cases so far is small enough that it can be contained. Only 2.5 per cent of the infected have died. However, the disease is serious and measures to reduce the chance of it spreading must be taken. We must try to talk people into not unnecessarily panicking.
Panic is not helpful, there is no doubt about it. On the other hand, apathy isn't helpful either. A broad guess, according to experts, is that 25-70 per cent of the population of any epidemic country may be infected and the virus may be five to ten times as lethal as seasonal flu. How the virus will spread in the weeks and months to come is impossible to tell. Diseases can take peculiar routes, and dally in unlikely reservoirs, as they hitchhike around the world.
The question of whether infected people can transmit the disease before they show any symptoms is a matter of quite a hot debate. If they can, the world is now in a horrible condition. The greater puzzle is whether all the governments are honest in reporting the correct number of fatalities due to this virus.
Poor countries would bear the biggest losses from a pandemic. Countries like Bangladesh would be in precarious situation should the virus infect their communities. It is time for our policy makers to sit in closed-door emergency meetings to prepare our health systems for what is to come that entails painstaking logistical planning. It is time to equip every single hospital of our country with supplies of gowns, masks, gloves, oxygen, drugs, ventilators, and other equipment. Our authorities must know how to set aside wards and floors for virus patients, how to cope if staffs fall ill, and how to choose between patients if they are overwhelmed. People who can afford may have already hoarded food and essentials including masks and hand glides. But the government must be prepared to supply such emergency materials for free for those who have not yet prepared themselves to face a pandemic.
Influenza, like many other respiratory diseases, thrives in cold and humid air. We may hope Covid-19 behaves the same way, spreading less as the weather gets warmer and drier. As winter turns to spring then summer, the reproductive rate of the virus will drop of its own accord.
There is, however, something good in coronavirus if it doesn't mutate into a more dangerous pathogen. Those of us who are in the neighbourhood of 70 or 80 have nothing to worry about our children and grandchildren. If we are over 70 or if we have an underlying health condition we are at high risk; if you are under 50 you are not.
We are used to grabbing life by the horns. But we have to calm our fear of death and dying. Death is just beneath our pillow as we sleep, strolling next to us as we walk, inserting its presence between each heart beat in our chest.
A few days ago, George Yancy, a professor of philosophy and an author, in an interview asked Geshe Dadul Namgyal, a Tibetan Buddhist monk: "Why, from a Buddhist perspective, we humans fear death?" Dadul Namgyal answered: "We fear death because we love life, but a little too much, and often look at just the preferred side of it. That is, we cling to a fantasised life, seeing it with colours brighter than it has."