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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 14-03-2020 10:19

The human herd stalked by a virus

So far, Argentina has been relatively free of infection from this particular virus, but Alberto Fernández’s government has decided to join the rest of the world and take suitably stringent measures.

Scientists say the coronavirus cannot even be ranked as a living creature because until it manages to insinuate its way into an adequate host cell it is unable to reproduce itself, but its lowly sub-biological status has not prevented it from going on a destructive rampage. Soon after making its first appearance barely three months ago in a street market in the middle of China, it (or rather its multitudinous offspring) induced that country’s government to cordon off vast areas of the country by putting scores of millions of people in quarantine, and then went on to get other governments, among them Italy’s, to do the same.

The economic damage it has wrought is already enormous. As well as halting production in countless factories and by so doing wrecking the international supply chain on which so many companies depend, the virus has badly wounded the huge travel industry by transforming multi-storeyed cruise ships into what distraught passengers describe as floating Petri dishes and, as W.H.Auden noticed tends to be the case when something untoward happens out there, it has had brokers roaring like beasts on the floor of the bourse along with the remains of stock prices.

And all this seems to be just for starters. Governments everywhere are under intense pressure to “do something” to stop the virus in its tracks. The approach most favour is to set about trying to persuade people to isolate themselves, preferably by staying indoors or, if they insist on running risks by venturing outside, to avoid hugging, kissing or even exchanging handshakes with one another because such practices are considered dangerous. Among politicians, it has become fashionable to set a good example to the rest by blowing kisses, knocking suitably covered elbows or waving a foot at those they meet. People have become toxic.

Meanwhile, Italy, encouraged by the Chinese example, has put itself in “lockdown” with most shops, schools and universities closed and churches staying empty, continental Europeans cannot visit the United States, astronomical amounts of money are getting put aside to soften the blows that are already raining on businesses big and small and in some places even taxes will not be collected for the duration.

So far, Argentina has been relatively free of infection from this particular virus, but after taking a sanguine view of the turmoil in East Asia, parts of Europe and then the US, Alberto Fernández’s government decided to join the rest of the world and take suitably stringent measures; incoming flights from much of abroad are banned, people suspected of carrying the virus have been warned they could end up in jail if they flout the official orders to steer clear of the rest of us, and the organisers of events such as rock concerts where crowds gather have been told to cancel them, while footballers will have to do their stuff in almost empty stadiums.

The temptation to go the whole hog is certainly strong, but there are those who think the panicky reaction, with governments everywhere trying to outdo one another in their efforts to convince the local population that they are determined to stop the fast-replicating virus from spreading before hospitals are ready to handle a big influx of patients, could have dire effects in the not too distant future.

Economic depressions of the kind the world could well be heading for are prone to breed fanaticism. Xenophobia was on the rise almost everywhere well before the virus came on the scene and made it seem realistic. As what seems to be barrelling towards us will be blamed on the inroads made by a “foreign” virus, something which Donald Trump and other leaders have gone out of their way to remind us, many already find it natural to put more distance between themselves and any foreigners in their vicinity because, after all, they could prove contagious.

So Chinese who had never been within a thousand miles of Wuhan, where the pandemic got underway, soon found themselves shunned by others and much the same is now happening to Italians and to an increasing number of other Europeans though, for somewhat mysterious reasons, the US administration assumes that presumably well-washed Britons are less likely than the slovenly Continentals to have the coronavirus.

Is this massive response to the arrival of a previously undocumented pathogen justified? Only with the benefit of hindsight will it be possible to give an answer, but to judge from what has happened so far, there is good reason to doubt it. According to the official reports totted up by the World Health Organisation, in the initial two-and-a-half months of the pandemic, the coronavirus killed about 5,000 people, fewer than have died in natural disasters such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions or tsunamis.

What is more, as a strikingly large proportion of those whose deaths have been attributed to the coronavirus were in their late 70s or 80s, and most of them had already been suffering from serious ailments, blaming their demise on the virus as though nothing else had been involved and saying that without it they would have lived for decades longer does not make much sense. As for the official statistics regarding the number of people who harbour it, they are surely wildly out of kilter because most of those infected feel they are healthy enough and see no need to undergo exhaustive tests in the relatively few places in which they can be carried out. As Democratic politicians are keen to point out, in the United States the necessary kits remain in short supply.

Until this situation changes, there will be no way of knowing whether the coronavirus is 10 times more deadly than the seasonal flu, as some epidemiologists have been warning us, or is in fact rather less, as others who are equally qualified say they believe.

While the flu is a nasty illness which every year helps put an end to many thousands of lives, its annual onslaughts do not come near to approaching the disruptive economic, political and social impact the coronavirus is having. On the contrary, they pass virtually unnoticed; humankind has grown accustomed to them as, indeed, it will sooner or later to the addition of the coronavirus to the unpleasant assortment of pathogens that regularly prey upon the species, picking off its weaker members like wolves stalking a herd of caribou.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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