Sanity in Times of Corona
What do we need to fear most about Corona, from a crisis governance perspective?
Most of us are likely to get the Corona virus. The new COVID19 does not make people ill enough, fast enough, to stop it from spreading rapidly across the globe. With two weeks incubation time and symptoms that are initially difficult to distinguish from a regular flu, and sometimes hardly manifest in a patient, the virus has all it takes to infect people worldwide, in no time. And it will infect many, many people, because of its newness: we have no immunity yet. However, the good news is that the fatality rate seems about one per cent – much lower than SARS or MERS or a number of avian flu viruses that made headlines in previous years, but more serious than the seasonal flu. This blog is about what we need to fear most, from a crisis governance perspective.
If the virus has low fatality and if it will spread anyway, then why do health institutes in every country do what they can to detect ‘patient zero’, isolate their contacts, and control the disease as much as they possibly can? Because we need to protect our health care systems by deterring its spread as much as possible. A disease that infects great numbers of patients at the same time, results in a peak demand for our health care facilities and the margins of intensive care beds at hospitals can only absorb so much. The disease is unlikely to have serious consequences for healthy people, but if many chronically ill or vulnerable elderly get infected, it will put them in danger and our health care systems under a lot of strain.
Do we all need mouth caps? Please, no. If anything has been debunked about the spread of the new virus, it has been the value of mouth caps. People need to be extra careful when sneezing (so throw away paper towels – that is the whole idea behind them being paper) and wash hands, as much as possible. Often mundane solutions for individual protection are the most effective and this situation seems no exception.
What citizens really need to fear is not so much the infection with the virus, but getting caught by overreactions from authorities. Travelling to regions where the virus has spread already is first and foremost unwise – if any plane goes there at all – because it is uncertain if and when you are allowed to return. Cruise ships have been denied access to harbours based on flimsy evidence, turning into floating luxury prisons for their passengers. Involuntary quarantine of two weeks or more is not something to look forward to, and some regions of China have come to a virtual standstill in terms of business continuity. Imagine what school closures and lock downs would do to continuity of organizations here, such as hospitals, when we need them most.
Also, the overreactions or outright hysteria by other citizens give rise to concern. Openly racist attacks on fellow citizens from South-East Asian origin, suspicion towards anyone arriving from somewhere in China, cancellation of travel plans to areas not even near a source of infection, teachers denying students from specific areas access to their class, and panic buying are among the irrational and even downright outrageous responses.
Disasters usually bring out the best in people. Most victims in a train or airplane crash are saved by the stranger sitting next to them. Most people whose house is flooded are saved by neighbours in a small rubber boat. Communities where people know each other and work together, show a surprising resilience and speedy recovery.
Yet when the threat is intangible, such as an infectious disease, plus highly uncertain and scary such as terrorism and radicalization, we see the opposite. Uncertainty and invisibility in combination with fear, in my view, seem to bring about stigmatization, racism, egoism and bigotry in many. We see authorities isolating people from each other instead of allowing them to help each other. Business operations and mobility slow down with detrimental effects on local economies and industries. With these types of reactions, we have to fear the response to fear more than the cause of fear. Whatever we do in response to the Corona virus, let us keep sane about it.
About the author:
Sanneke Kuipers is associate professor of Crisis Governance at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs. She leads the Leiden University Crisis Research Center. In 2009, she worked as a senior crisis consultant for the Dutch Ministry of Health in their response operations to the H1N1 pandemic flu.