The Coronavirus hysteria

Each day and age comes with its own fears, some misplaced, some authentic, but what am I saying, most of them are totally bogus. Some of the public fears show how easy we give in to hysteria.

For future generations who might look at our day and age with the same wondrous incredulity that we exhibit towards people who lived 100 or 1,000 years ago, this blog is totally for you.


In the Year of our Lord 2020, an unfortunate epidemic started in the land of China. At the time, China was a country populated by 1.5 billion souls. Approximately, 3,000 Chinese citizens contracted a Coronavirus (Covid-19) and died. The epidemic spread by international travel to all the corners of the Earth, with another 100,000 people catching the virus. Of these, another 1,000 people (or 1%) of the infected succumbed to the assorted pulmonary infections (i.e., pneumonia). And so and so fourth… a modern scribe might depict the Coronavirus.

The Numbers

So far cca. 4,000 people have died from Covid-19 worldwide.

The world population, as of 10 minutes ago, was 7,8 billion.

Just in the USA, 20,000-52,000 people have died of seasonal flu in 2019-2020.

One can easily multiply this number by a factor of 20 to find out that seasonal flu has killed just under 1,000,000 people worldwide in the last 6 months.

Is Covid-19 a killer? Yes, it is. Does it compare to the flu? No, it is a joke of a virus.

Like all opportunistic viruses, it seeks out weak or compromised victims: the very young and the very old. It avoids like the devil avoids holy water, the strong and the able. I consider such viruses jokes. By comparison, other viruses and bacteria attack the robust and the healthy. These are the real killers because they deprave humans of their best and brightest right before their prime or just as they come of age.

I do not want to sound callous, but it’s always the same. Young and old people are the first victims of circumstance in any war, plague, or natural disaster. While the demise of the former is a tragedy, that of the latter is a consequence of life.

But if you want to know which virus takes the cake: it is the Spanish flu

Spanish flu victims – (1919).

The virus appeared on the tail end of WWI, attacking a population debilitated by five years of war. It hit neutral countries too. Switzerland and of course Spain were especially hard hit. By the way, it became known as the Spanish flu, not because it originated from Spain, but because the media in the belligerent countries were under orders not to report it. The press of neutral Spain didn’t have such qualms. So, the flu became known as the Spanish flu.

It infected 1.9 billion people killing just under 100 million people in one year.

Now that’s a killer, not the Coronavirus! And that explains the Roaring 20s too, eh!

The Black Death was by comparison tame: only 50 million deaths spread over 100 years.

The Black Death – by Swiss artist Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901). It exemplifies the artist’s obsession with nightmares of war, pestilence and death. The painting shows Death rides on a winged creature, who travels through the street of a medieval town.
Very interestingly, Arnold was born in Basel, which shared an interesting link with the Black Death. Wikipedia dixit: “The plague came to Europe in 1347, but did not reach Basel until June 1349. The guilds, asserting that the Jews were responsible—several had been tortured and confessed—demanded they be executed, which the Council did in January 1349, except for a few who escaped to Alsace.[16] During the Basel massacre, 600 Jews were murdered. They were shackled inside a wooden barn on an island in the Rhine, which was set afire. The few survivors – young orphans – were forcibly converted to Christianity. The council then forbade Jews in Basel for 200 years, except that their money was helpful in rebuilding after the Basel earthquake of 1356 which destroyed much of the city along with a number of castles in the vicinity. The city offered courts to nobles as an alternative to rebuilding their castles, in exchange for the nobles’ military protection of the city.

It wiped off 60 percent of the population of the British Isles in 100 years. Some of its perverse effects were not all bad. In England for instance, rents and wages took off, pushing people out of medieval subsistence into a money-based economy. It kick-started pre-capitalist accumulation of capital, allowing England to gain a societal advantage over its continental neighbors.

In the case of France, however, it set back population levels for 400 years. The country recovered its pre-1347 population of some 25 million inhabitants just in time for the French Revolution, in 1789! Talk about an unfair world. Before the 100 Years’ war (1337-1453), France was the richest and most densely populated country in Europe. After the Plague and the War, it was a mere shadow of its former self.

Of all the European countries, the kingdom of Poland faired the best. Having instituted a quarantine at the beginning of the contagion, and having just redesigned their cities on some of the most hygienic norms available (quite avantgarde for the times), the Poles became the chosen destination of Jewish refugees. Tens of thousands of Jews fled a disease-mad Europe that wrongfully perceived them as the architects of the Black Death. Tens of thousands of Jews were burned by demonic multitudes who imagined them as vectors of the disease.

Incidentally, that’s when Poland started to become the terre d’asile for millions of Jews. Given that the Jews were among the most learned people in the 14th century, acting as repositories of hundreds of years of accumulated Muslim and Greek-Latin medical knowledge, this proved a boon for Polish medieval health care system. So much so that the country did not experience the cataclysmic mortality that all but unraveled the fabric of medieval Europe.

The numbers never lie.

But perhaps some of us are not convinced by mere numbers. Do not fret, I have prepared some historical facts for the skeptics.

Le Petit Journal – The Angel of Death with a sickle a.k.a – Cholera – the “killer” of that age (1912). During the Balkan Wars, more Romanian soldiers died of Vibrio cholerae than of Bulgarian bullets, shrapnel, and bayonets. In fact, the Romanian Institute of Epidemiology Dr. Cantacuzino (i.e., Romanian Center for Disease Control) bears the name of Doctor Ioan Cantacuzino who instituted a quarantine system that limited the spread and gravity of the epidemic. Romania’s contribution to the Second Balkan War: 6,000 deaths. He also discovered the concept of contact immunity, and several vaccines against TB and malaria. This genuine “Dr. House” established the fields of experimental medicine and microbiology in Romania.

So if you want to look for reasons to make you afraid of living, look no more. I am here to bring you the expertise only a hypochondriac could bring you. I have been a hypochondriac for my entire life. Luckily, like Dr. Strangelove before me, at some point in time and space I stopped fearing diseases, and started to take more of a detached interest in their study.

Mind you, I never stopped being mortally afraid of disease and death. I have, however, started to appreciate life more as a lesson and less as a timeline.

One of the diseases that have fascinated my teen years was cholera.

Vibrio cholerae – a not so fancy bacterium. Ebola looks meaner and tougher. Cholera looks like a pussy compared to the cobra like design of Ebola.
Ebola – the face of Death. Luckily it “burns” the carrying vectors too quickly to do any real damage. It kills too fast to be a true “killer”. Some strains are so virulent that they kill in a record 48-72 hours. Weak consolation for its victims but excellent news for humanity. This means that the virus is too strong to exit its natural reservoir, the Congo. Its very lethality and potency act against it. Talk about poetic justice!

As a general rule, fast-killing diseases are too contagious for their own good. The reverse of the medal is also present: catchy maladies are not real killers, as a rule of thumb. Some of them (the plague, typhus, varricela or measles) are quite the opposite: both deadly and very contagious.

Luckily, we live in a day and age, where antibiotics, antivirals, hygiene products, and vaccination are readily available to act as firewalls in the face of any of the aforementioned. Of course, not everybody is convinced by or believes in the power of immunization but then again, that is the beautiful face of diversity. What would we do if we all thought the same way?!

Returning to the history of cholera, there have been seven pandemics in recent history:

While it is hard to estimate how many people contracted it and how many died from it throughout history, we are talking about 3-5 million people infected and 21,000 to 143,000 deaths per year (2015). If we extrapolated these numbers and applied statistical regressive methods, we’d be looking historically speaking at hundreds of millions exposed to Vibrio cholerae with as many as half of them – fatalities. That is at least 100 million cholera deaths in total.

Compared to this, Coronavirus is a case of hiccups. Speaking of which:

Correction – he won an Ignoble Nobel prize for his unique discovery. This is a genuine prize celebrating ten unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research; its stated aim being to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” 

Only 20 percent of people who develop cholera, are symptomatic. This sickness is not fit for graphic description but suffice to say that whatever goes in the human body, comes out very, very fast. The most virulent cases die of electrolytic depletion and shock within 24-48 hours. We are talking a large adult reduced from 100 kg to 35 kg in a matter of days. Nothing stays in. Everything comes out like this:

Typical cholera diarrhea that looks like “rice water”.

So, if you want to worry about something, worry about the flu, the plague, cholera or Ebola.

Don’t sweat the small stuff.

2 thoughts on “The Coronavirus hysteria

  1. I understand the gist of your message. However as I have a family member who has a suppressed immune system, I am glad that people are realizing that they should be using more common sense such as not going in to work when they have the flu, and washing their hands regularly, for example. Should my family member be in contact with any of the viruses you describe, he is unlikely to survive. So truly, while there is hysteria going on generally, there are many who have reason to fear and who appreciate the precautions and the teaching opportunity.

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    1. I agree with you. Precautions are in order. Isolation works like a firewall in stopping the contagion. And yes, immuno-compromised people are more at risk as are people over 60 years of age. When I wrote the blog, I was operating on a different data set. I thought Covid-19 was “tamer” than the seasonal flu. And of course, this wasn’t the case. What we are seeing with this virus is a contagion that could have been nipped in the bud, but wasn’t. Instead of a response as robust as with the Ebola crisis (2014-16), the powers that be allowed a virus to escape its natural reservoir in China, migrate to Asia, Middle East, Europe, the Americas, Oceania, all within 45 days.

      Instead of strong containment measures, we are looking not at a hysteria, not at a panic, instead we look at a preventable pandemic that will perhaps rival the Spanish flu. I hope not. I hope greater minds will concoct a vaccine.

      And I also hope that instead of evolving into something tougher to kill, Covid-19 will go the way of syphilis.

      Syphilis was brought back to Europe from the Americas in 1492. It started as an acute disease, killing in under 1 month, Then it “mellowed” down, as Europeans evolved resistance to it, its victims resisting for months and years.
      By the 1900s, syphilis had become a chronic, multiple stage disease, that took anywhere between 3 to 10 years to overcome its victims’ immune systems.

      I do not know if this is how Covid-19 is going to play out. I think that as people gather some form of immunity or resistance to it, it will lose its virulence and be relegated to the annals of medical history as the “Big Scare of 2020.”

      I really hope that your family will stay safe throughout this contagion.

      Viruses are the only things that threaten our dominion over this planet.

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