OPINION: Mass hysteria over coronavirus does more harm than good

OPINION by Ben Sanderson

What a year.

2020 began as a year of certainty in the UK over the fate of Brexit and curious uncertainty over the destiny of the country, but by mid-March the situation worldwide has taken over the news and it is one none could have predicted.

The coronavirus (or COVID-19, to give it its scientific name), a flu-like virus sweeping Earth, has reached Europe and the UK, with over 1,500 cases and over 50 deaths in the UK*, and Europe as a whole has come to a standstill.

The endless stories from the national press (every newspaper and news website available) has coronavirus stories galore. My brother visited the BBC News website to find the top seventeen stories were all related to the coronavirus.


We never have had such over-the-top coverage of any topic in the news in my lifetime, not the parliamentary crisis over Brexit, nor the Olympics in London, nor the Syrian Civil War.

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Image courtesy of US National Park Service: The coronavirus

This has affected all aspects of life in the UK, with panic buying being the most obvious example. Aldi and Tesco are just two supermarket chains finding themselves bereft of toilet roll, flour or eggs to sell.

People are buying all sorts of things they would not normally need en masse. There have been stories of people filling whole sections of their shopping trollies with tins of mackerel (who even eats mackerel?) or chicken breast. People also often seem to be trusting pasta and toilet roll with saving them from coronavirus. A regular fix of spag-bol and bottom wiping must make us all OK.

The spread it’s had to all other areas of life has been stratospheric. The media was at the forefront of getting the Premier League and Football League cancelled once Mikel Arteta was diagnosed with COVID-19 (three Leicester City players were in self-isolation beforehand). To protect players, staff and fans, the main weekend hobby of millions has just been scrapped.

All “non-essential” travel has been warned against based on government advice, including to pubs and restaurants, and cinemas are feeling the effects of it greatly, with films such as No Time to Die and Mulan being postponed for months over virus fears, meaning cinemas are destined for months of emptiness. The hysteria postponed James Bond – and all the fun places to go to with it.

The holiday companies are really going to take a sucker punch. A friend of my father’s, an air host for about 25 years, is fearing for his job, as his firm British Airways are convinced they will have to make several staff redundant. Another, who works for a company selling villas, says his company is losing £1.5 million a week. Yet another manages a company selling outdoor events. It is all looking very bleak.

Already, FlyBe have gone defunct this year (though their struggles meant COVID-19 was the final nail in the coffin), and Dixons Carphone, albeit amidst financial turmoil of their own, have revealed they are to make 2,900 people redundant due to wholesale closures. In Leicester, Apple and Urban Outfitters are among big names to close their doors. London, meanwhile, sees Trafalgar Square, Harrods and much of Central London deserted, as if a zombie apocalypse had descended.

The consequences for business and employment have been and will continue to be catastrophic. Businesses around the country are bracing themselves for a life-or-death few months and many might not survive. Jobs will be lost, as the state may be forced to grow disconcertingly in power to help subsidise for the loss the private sector is experiencing.

It cannot be said in any plainer terms – the world has changed entirely for the worse.

Looking at COVID-19, though, it is impossible to figure out a good reason for this.

That is not to say that we should not be concerned about the coronavirus. 188,167 people have been diagnosed and almost 7,500 have died worldwide* and it is definitely a mega disease.

Let us take a look at China, though. The country which gave birth to the virus has seen 80,881 cases and 3,226 deaths* related to the virus. It has already peaked there, quite some time ago judging by the speed of coronavirus events in Europe. China is a country with a population just shy of 1.4 billion. Less than 0.01% of the population have even had the virus, and far less still have died from it. The same rings true for the UK and most countries which are dealing with it.

The reason so few cases turn to deaths is because only the elderly and those with pre-existing breathing problems are at genuine risk of dying. Many “click-bait” articles came out following the death from coronavirus of a 21-year-old Spanish football coach – but he had pneumonia beforehand. Most people recover from the coronavirus.

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Image courtesy of Bay Harbour Islands: The coronavirus

Even among the elderly, the risk of death is below 15%. That is significantly less than half. For all the hysteria’s outreach threatening to, in Nick Ferrari’s words, “stigmatise” an entire group of people, most will actually recover. A 101-year-old Chinese man recovered from coronavirus. Most people, even the geriatrics, do. Those with the pre-existing condition which is most at risk of death, cardiovascular disease, are at 10.5% risk of death. This is a very low figure to get so hyperactive over.

Yet they are being told not to go out for fear that they will get the virus. 14 care homes were shut down to visitors in the North-East due to the fears. There are plans to make the elderly self-isolate for four months. Imagine being elderly yourself, having rheumatism or arthritis or a heart condition and barely being able to stand, and spending most of the week alone in a chair watching re-runs of Only Fools and Horses. The highlight of the week, the thing that brightens up life, will be visits from loved ones or trips out walking or swimming. The government are threatening to take that away and consign these people to abject misery over fears these people might die from the coronavirus. If they are all put in self-isolation “for their own good” by nut jobs who know no better, they might well wish they had it.

The young and middle-aged are not even at great risk from the virus’ effects. Mikel Arteta and Callum Hudson-Odoi, both of whom had coronavirus and whose cases led to the postponement of elite football in England, have immediately started to feel better. To them, it was little more than an ailment which got them a tad under-the-weather.

I generally am cynical of those who blame the media for life’s problems but this time they really are blowing an issue out of proportion. As the media machine churns out more and more stories to cash in on the hysteria, there seems little awareness among people as to how the virus really will affect them.

People are genuinely prepared to go into virtual lock-down for months over the flu. That is just ridiculous. People are going to disrupt their entire lives over heightened risk of catching the flu.

At a first whiff of the virus, elite football was postponed, and viral growth, while quick, has seen even faster responses, as the US and EU locked down their borders and the stock market prepares for a crash even worse than the 2008 financial crisis, all because people cannot brave the flu.

I am no sceptic to the idea it will be painful and I would not wish the coronavirus on anyone but it is a virus, it exists, and it will win eventually, unless people are literally willing to never mix with the outside world again to combat the virus. We know we cannot stop this virus, and maybe the “herd immunity” approach suggested by Sir Patrick Vallance will actually be the sensible option.

Better to go down with a bout of flu than plunge the stock market, the foundation of world economy, and several businesses and jobs into the abyss. I, for one, am not prepared to lose everything over worries about a virus it will take a matter of days, or even hours, to recover from.

That is not the way that the media and Twitter brigade see it, though, with many tweets making clear the absurd extent to which people are hyping up the virus.

As these tweets show, Twitter has been incendiary over the coronavirus. From the endless calls to suspend football, to the endless calls for a school or work walk out, to calls for martial law and China-style containment of the coronavirus.

It is worth noting how in line with this over-reaction on Twitter has been with government policy (though they are always blamed on the app for actually being too laissez-faire over the issue), as more and more public buildings and events face the axe over coronavirus fears.

Italy and Spain have gone into lock-down over the virus and sometimes the UK are urged to follow suit, in spite of the fact that the UK is an island nation and so will have less to fear from the spread than continental Europe due to the English Channel’s fluid barrier. In addition, the UK’s first case came twenty-four hours after Italy’s, yet Italy has seen over 2,100 more deaths and over 25,000 more cases*.

The media has led the charge which has created all this insanity. Who can forget Piers Morgan likening it to a war? We should all be very sure that staying home in pyjamas and watching Netflix is no match for risking aerial suicide to save thousands from having homes bombed, or slogging over thousands of miles of Russian land to meet terrifying tank resistance in Kursk. We are not fighting a war. If anything, we are cowering away.

The media think they are doing the right thing by informing people regularly (constantly) of the coronavirus, making them aware of its reach and effects and its status in the country and world. No one has changed their minds due to coronavirus, though. The panic has not been an effect of genuine fear of catching the virus and dying from it (well, that is, in rational minds). The panic has been a knock-on effect of the panic. The panic buying, holiday withdrawals, university cancellations and cinema closures were all results more of the hysteria and its calls than genuine reasoning about the coronavirus. All the media have really done by incessantly hammering home chaos concerning coronavirus is not inform us more but scare us, and so leave shops bereft of essential supplies due to stupidity.

This is the same stupidity that has told us that the UK would become a “Third World country” after Brexit or that the world is genuinely going to end in a decade due to global warming. Supposed experts fed into the orchestrators of such ill-founded logic which was supposed to change our minds and our ways.

It never did, and neither of those doom-and-gloom prophecies have been proven true. We, rightly, never listened to the “experts” then and we should not now. (To be fair, it is actually the other side who are committing worse offences now, with the Daily Mail and Telegraph having a field day with the scare stories). Nobody has a clue what is going to happen. The coronavirus could last until Spring 2021, but it could also peak in early April. For some reason, we all seem drawn to see things from the worst-case scenario. Especially in times like this, that is highly inappropriate.

The reason why coronavirus hysteria has gained more impetus than that of the same ilk which characterised the “Bremain” campaign and the climate change student strikes is because there is no clear political motive for the crisis calls, and it is of course a public health emergency. When health is brought into the question, even for a fairly low-risk disease such as COVID-19, people are much more prone to jump out of their seats. This is not informed preparation for a crisis. This is stupidity and it will drag this world down.

Compared to SARS which created panic in the early 2000s, the coronavirus is definitely worse, but then we should not be comparing it to SARS just because it was the most recent outbreak of a virus close to home. Why don’t we compare it to influenza? That was one of the deadliest epidemics in human history (which the media and Twitter would have us believe about the coronavirus), with around 500 million getting Spanish flu and at least 17 million dying. That was after the Great War, and hospitals, still very flawed by today’s standards, were dealing with a high overspill of war injuries while influenza made its mark. The people did not stand a chance. We are treating coronavirus as if it has that potency, but in fact the death toll will end up being so far short of that total it will not even be worth comparing the two.

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Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Chinese President Xi Jinping did a tour of coronavirus-hit Wuhan amidst the January outbreak in China

It’s all well and good saying that if the coronavirus ends soon and until then life coming to a standstill seemed like a complete over-reaction, that the right thing was done and we came together to kill a virus. We would all like that, but it’s just not true. By encouraging this doomsday mentality, the oversensitive lunatics calling for a lockdown have thought about nothing else.

The bottom line is that businesses are going to go under and people will lose their jobs if we keep acting like a bull in a china shop, and the stock market will be so crippled that financial prospects afterwards will not look pretty either. The coronavirus will then be a tragedy not just because of illness and death (which is undoubtedly an absolute tragedy) but even worse – because of the sheer number of people affected – the world will be destitute.

Never underestimate the coronavirus. That is not the message. There is no need, though, to make the virus even worse than it already is by making tons of people fear for their livelihoods. It achieves nothing but depression, worry and fear for the future.

If we really are using the war theme, then urgency certainly was important (and it has had more than its fair share of representation in terms of coronavirus coverage).

What was also important was that the mentality to get through a war is not to continuously press panic buttons like a bride whose wedding dress does not fit, but to “Keep Calm and Carry On”, like the film puts it.

That is the exact mentality that should be advised. Drastic action will only prompt more confusion and panic than is at all necessary. At this point in time, what we need is a calm head.

What we definitely do not need is this insanity-driven hysteria, which has turned the world into a Y2K-esque cult. It will, if we let it go on, do far more harm than good. Let’s grow up and take coronavirus in our stride. We can beat it – and we don’t have to end the world to win.

*Figures correct at time of writing

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