Nobody knows enough to dare shrug off the dangers of coronavirus

The only responsible course of action is to delay the spread of the virus until a vaccine can be produced.

SHARE Nobody knows enough to dare shrug off the dangers of coronavirus
People wearing protective masks because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus walk near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.

People wearing protective masks because of the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus walk near the Eiffel Tower in Paris on Tuesday.

Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

The biggest obstacle to an effective national response to the spreading coronavirus is the notion that no response is really necessary — that the virus is a nothingburger.

The coronavirus is less dangerous than the common flu. So say President Trump and his allies. And like the flu, they say, it probably will burn out by summer.

“It will go away,” Trump said again on Tuesday.

If only this were true, and maybe it is.

But we just don’t know, and neither do they.

Until we do know, the only responsible course of action is to listen to the experts — the world’s leading epidemiologists — and do what we can in a free society to delay the spread of the virus until a vaccine can be produced.

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How the United States and other nations fight the coronavirus now, the experts say, could determine whether it takes permanent root, roaring back year after year around the globe, or is beaten to the margins of public health risks.

How we fight the virus, they say, also could become a model for how we fight other new infectious diseases, which are sure to come.

COVID-19 is no surprise

The one fact we know for sure about COVID-19 is that its arrival is no surprise at all — and it didn’t just happen.

Like other infectious diseases that have become epidemic over the last several decades — including AIDS, Ebola, West Nile, SARS and Lyme disease — COVID-19 jumped from animal hosts to human hosts as the result of human activities, such as deforestation, that have shrunk and transformed the natural world.

How the United States and other nations fight the coronavirus now, the experts say, could determine whether it takes permanent root, roaring back year after year around the globe, or is beaten to the margins of public health risks.

We can blame a bat in China, that is to say, for the coronavirus. Or, more usefully, we can blame the growth of cities and towns in China that reduced the bat’s natural habitat, driving it into closer contact with humans.

What we don’t know

Trump and others who complain about an overreaction to the COVID-19 threat make the argument, appealing in its simplicity, that the common flu each year kills an average of 56,000 Americans while the coronavirus has been linked, as of Tuesday, to only 29 deaths. Yet when the flu hits, the skeptics say, nobody closes schools, asks employees to work from home or cancels trade shows and concerts.

The weakness in this argument is that it looks at a single snapshot of COVID-19, concludes the relative danger is permanently low, and blithely ignores all that is unknown and could go wrong.

Epidemiologists believe the coronavirus is significantly more contagious than the seasonal flu, though they’re unsure as to how much. According to one estimate, each person with the coronavirus infects, on average, 2.2 other people; each person with the flu infects, on average, just 1.3 other people.

The experts also believe the coronavirus is more deadly. The mortality rate is estimated to be between 1% and 3.4%. The mortality rate for the typical flu bug is a fraction of that, about 0.1%.

The experts have no idea whether the coronavirus will burn out by summer, though Trump is counting on it. It could. Or it could run straight through the warm months, as viruses sometimes do. Or it could subside in April and flare up again in the fall.

Our point is this: Nobody knows enough to assume anything.

Considering the worst case

While Trump and his allies have tried to sell a best-case scenario for the coronavirus, because a full-blown public health crisis does nothing for the president’s re-election prospects, it is irresponsible to dismiss the worst-case scenario.

Harvard epidemiologist Marc Lipsitch, having run computer models of viruses with similar degrees of contagiousness, warns that the coronavirus, if left unchecked, could infect 20% to 60% of the world’s adult population. Assuming a mortality rate of 1% to 2%, he says, millions of people would die.

Lipsitch, not surprisingly, favors such measures as closing schools and prohibiting public gatherings.

Slowing the spread

A growing consensus is that the coronavirus cannot be contained. As of Tuesday afternoon, the Centers for Disease Control reported there were confirmed cases of the disease in 108 countries, from Afghanistan to Vietnam. But the spread of the virus can be slowed, as China has shown, easing the crunch on government services, public health workers, nursing homes and hospitals.

As a nation, we must fight back. Nothing is inevitable. The coronavirus is not just another variation on the flu.

In the same way, the United States and other nations do not have to accept the inevitability of other dangerous new pathogens that originate in animals.

More environmentally aware government policies that put a premium on preserving habitats could, at minimum, forestall future pandemics.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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