It's only fair to share…

Last month saw the passing of Terry Jones, one of the members of Monty Python’s Flying circus and a comedy genius. Sadly it is unlikely that if formed today they would get a run on the BBC. A group of six “cis-gender white men” would not be regarded as “diverse enough”.

Jones was the director of Life of Brian and co-director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The latter was set in the time of King Arthur. There is one scene where Eric Idle is wandering through a town pulling with a cart calling “bring out your dead”. There ensues a typical Python scene where John Cleese say he has one but the supposedly deceased calls out “I’m not dead yet” and then adds, “I’m getting better”. For those who have not seen either of these movies I recommend that you do.

King Arthur is thought to have lived 1500 years ago. It seems that some elements of human nature do not change that much. We still love to be scared. Whether it is the next ice age, the world variably running out of food or oil the Y2K bug (remember that one – it was only 20 years ago) or the world ending in 2030 due to changes in the weather – doomsday is always upon us.

Another variant is disease. In years gone by infections did cause significant death. The bubonic plague comes to mind. Even a century ago the Spanish influenza of 1918 was estimated to have affected 30% of the worlds population and led to hundreds of thousands of deaths.

Each year tens of thousands die from complications of infections. This mainly impacts those who are elderly or have other medical problems. What we do not see is large numbers of deaths from viruses in the population at large. Each subsequent epidemic of influenza since 1918 has seen fewer deaths in total and massive drops in the per capita impact.

This is not due to medical science. It is due to better living conditions, better nutrition and improved sanitation. Add to that less exposure to the elements- particularly the cold.

Yet we have also seen predictions of dire results with new viruses such as avian flu, SARS, swine flu and now corona virus. In 2009 it was predicted that millions would die. Less were impacted than the regular flu. SARS disappeared as quickly as it emerged.

Corona virus is not new. It is a family of viruses, which case the common cold. People do not die of a cold like illness. Someone who is unwell for other reasons, and gets a secondary infection may die – especially if elderly. There will be rare instances where an otherwise healthy individual may get an overwhelming infection. In some cases there is a problem with an over reaction by the immune system. This is what was thought to have caused many of the SARS related deaths.

However, we again find that doomsday is being predicted. On the positive side, the reaction from governments and public health has been more reasoned and proportionate this time – so far.

On an average day just in Australia, over 50 will die of smoking related disease and eight people will commit suicide. Each year over 2000 die from complications of influenza (most over age 85). Thus far world wide there have been 700 deaths associated with the new corona virus.

Now it is possible that this is an underestimate, as the Chinese government is not known for its openness. However even if we quadruple this figure (and I am not suggesting that this is the case), it is still miniscule in the context of deaths each day in China with a population of close to 1.4 billion.

So do we need to panic? Of course not! Is this virus a major threat to humanity at large? No. Is perspective often the first casualty of the latest doomsday scenario? It can be. As mentioned above, so far, there has not been an overreaction.

I am reminded of a quote by Friedrich Hayek – “Emergencies have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded”. There are some signs of this.

A variation of a cold virus is not the end of the world. There are far more significant health problems (such as obesity and type two diabetes caused by the adoption of low fat dietary guidelines) that do not generate the amount of angst that a “novel” virus does.

We all have an immune system and for the vast majority of us (there are exceptions) it will deal with viruses as they come along.

I could be wrong but every epidemic that was going to decimate humanity has not done so. Corona will be no different. Keep perspective and a sense of humour. There will be no need to bring out your dead.