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OP-ED | 29-02-2020 11:06

Let’s put this pandemic – and panic – in perspective

The coronavirus pandemic – and panic – worldwide is providing easy meat for some sensationalist media but it also needs to be placed in perspective.

A fortnight ago we dedicated this editorial space to the tragedy of Wichi children dying in Salta from malnutrition and polluted water – are these children now ceasing to die or should we now forget about them in order to rush out and buy a face-mask before they run out of stock? Argentina’s second death so far this year from dengue last Thursday was buried deep into the second half of newspapers with far less attention lavished than Argentina’s first unconfirmed cases of coronavirus the same day (two recent arrivals from Italy and a cruiser passenger). Why does the unknown justify fear more than people actually dying?

These local deaths at considerable distance from the national capital (1,500 kilometres in the case of the Wichi children, or some 500 kilometres in the case of the dengue epicentre of Entre Ríos, the leading if not the only province affected) might lack the world stage of coronavirus and the single digits of fatalities might impress less than a death toll now approaching 3,000 across the planet (which is nevertheless, only 0.00004 percent of world population). The comparisons sometimes made with the Black Death (which killed well over 100 million people out of a world population then far below half a billion in the mid-14th century) are certainly wildly exaggerated. The mortality rate of coronavirus is two or three percent and it might also be worth taking a closer look at who is succumbing – thus of the first three fatalities in Italy, two were of an extremely advanced age while the third was in the last stages of cancer. It could be argued that the dangers of coronavirus lie precisely in it being far more asymptomatic than (say) Ebola and thus harder to control but even so it is hard to understand why this pathogen has so dominated world headlines thus far this year, causing the steepest stock market plunges since the 2008- 2009 financial meltdown and threatening the Tokyo Olympics.

While it would be foolish to politicise the paranoia and panic triggered by the coronavirus unduly, the suspicion lurks that it provides a convenient outlet for feelings against globalisation in general and its Chinese source of origin in particular. The politics of envy against China’s surge to superpower status, thanks to its huge and industrious population, blends easily enough into fears of the threats posed by globalisation to industrial employment in particular. The isolationism to which today’s world is all too prone can only be reinforced by this latter-day version of the “yellow peril” of a century ago.

Yet an isolationist nationalism would not come amiss if it resulted in more attention to Argentina’s endemic pathogens – to dengue or such silent killers as Chagas disease or the Junín virus – and to the appalling sanitary conditions suffered by the Wichi and other indigenous populations (and also in some shantytowns much closer to here). In times when the great philosopher and physicist Mario Bunge can live into his 101st year and judges can collect pensions of up to a monthly 770,000 pesos, life seems much harder on some people than on others. It is time to give them a more even break.

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