Painful Truth: Too easy to fall into paranoia about virus

Our columnist can feel the creeping coronavirus panic

I’m trying to get over my innate tendency to read absolutely everything I can find about the novel coronavirus, now renamed COVID-19.

It’s possible to spend hours reading updates, world news, blogs (yes, there are still blogs, and yes, some of them are dedicated entirely to emerging new viruses) and tweets about the virus, which is thought to have emerged in the city of Wuhan, China, late last fall.

The grim daily death and infection updates delivered by the government of China and various health agencies are the most alarming, of course.

I’ve had to take refuge in math, which is helpful. Wuhan has a population of more than 11 million people – a city bigger than New York yet few of us could find it on an unlabeled map. The approximately 1,100 people who have died of the virus represent about 0.01 per cent of the city’s total population.

That means that in real terms, we’re likely to be okay. The virus may be new and scary, but the numbers of people actually infected are still quite small on a planet of more than 7.5 billion.

That said, there are always ways to scare yourself, if you really want to be scared.

For example, an article quoting an expert on epidemics (I said I’m trying not to read too much about the virus, not that I’m succeeding) laid out the absolute worse-case scenario – the virus gets out of the extreme quarantine measures imposed by China and spreads worldwide. It would ultimately infect about 60 per cent of the total population.

Fortunately, the fatality rate is thought to be relatively low. It might be below one per cent.

Then math, my friend, turns around and bites me, letting me know that one per cent of 60 per cent of the population of earth is around 4,500,000 people.

That’s a lot of bereaved relatives and friends.

To put it into more concrete terms – what would the worse-case scenario look like for Langley?

With a combined population of more than 158,000 people in City and Township, the expected deaths could be as high as 950 local residents.

That seems terrifying, but it almost pales in comparison to the idea that we could have 95,000 illnesses. Or, that we might have to self-quarantine, shutting down schools and businesses for weeks, to avoid that level of spread of the virus.

It’s extremely unlikely that the worst-case scenario will come into play, but it is likely that people, like myself, could go overboard and panic if the virus does begin to spread more widely.

Ultimately, I have to do the difficult thing. I have to trust that the authorities are planning at least reasonably well, that the systems we have in place are sturdy, and that catastrophe is not always imminent.

I also have to admit to myself that bad information, like conspiracy theories, are not the only way you can panic about something. Too much good information can drive you into just as much of a panic as bad info.

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