By Adhirath Sethi Mar. 04, 2020
The world collectively is losing its shit amid the coronavirus outbreak. People everywhere are panic buying – hoarding masks, hand sanitisers, and even toilet paper. And it doesn’t stop at that. They are attacking people from China, asking them to go back and “take their coronavirus with them”.
Let’s start by accepting that no one wants an epidemic. In many ways, Covid-19 has been like the CAA of viruses: it’s unwelcome, causes way too much trouble and, sadly, ends up claiming lives needlessly. In addition, it has also made people paranoid, messed up travel plans, and scared children, many of whom have been stuck inside their homes after schools have been shut down. And – because nothing in this day and age isn’t about money – wreaked havoc on the stock markets.
Since the dawn of this decade, Covid-19 has caused one freak-out after another, culminating in the kind of doomsday prophesies reserved usually for Roland Emmerich films. This isn’t an overstatement in any way. In fact, to say that the world is slowly starting to lose its mind in panic is a rather accurate depiction of the way things are going.
Take the stock markets. No one is really sure whether the recent plunge in markets around the world is because of the coronavirus, or because stock markets were waiting for any excuse to correct drastically. It’s a bit like a round of Jenga that’s been going on for a while such that the tower is more unstable than a right-wing radio host saying the virus is a conspiracy to bring down Donald Trump. If someone sneezes and the tower falls, is it really the sneeze that was to blame?
Someone shouts “pandemic” and we immediately start losing our sense of reason and behaving like we’re the only ones that matter.
In truth, everyone has been wondering how, with flagging GDP numbers and dismal unemployment data, the Sensex was repeatedly crossing all-time highs. A crash was always imminent and Covid-19 was a handy scare to shake off speculators and bring things to a level we all expected to be at anyway.
But if the stock market is a bit distant and unworthy of your concern, how about toilet paper? In typical pre-apocalyptic mayhem, people from around the world have started hoarding supplies. Reports from Jakarta to Toronto show people with overstuffed shopping carts, scrambling to buy as much canned food, medicines, and masks. But the problem with panic buying is that it doesn’t reach people who really need them. So worried are people of a potential quarantine that they aren’t even letting go off toilet paper. According to one video posted on social media, a supermarket in Sydney ran out of toilet paper in 90 seconds. So severe is the shortage of this questionable hygiene product that the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong, brought it up in a statement that calmly laid out the situation and urged people to remain calm and not deny their fellow citizens their rightful access to a clean bottom.
But forget toilet paper. We Indians don’t need it as much as the others do (Pro tip: hoard toilet paper and start an export business in two weeks).
What about xenophobia? True, Covid-19 did originate in China, and most of the cases can be rooted back to Wuhan, but at what point does caution turn into outright racism? While no one is arguing that we need to limit travel to China or monitor those entering India until the outbreak is brought under control, the extrapolation of our uneasiness with anything Chinese is moving into a more sinister territory. So much so that there is a whole Wikipedia page dedicated to incidents of racism and xenophobia around the world. These have ranged anywhere from telling Chinese (including those who have lived outside China all their lives) to go home and “take their coronavirus with them”, to guests at hotels refusing to stay there if there are Chinese also staying in the hotel. In London, a 23-year-old Singaporean man was assaulted by a group of people in a racist attack related to coronavirus. “Less than 0.001% of Chinese people have coronavirus, yet more than 99.999% have already experienced coronaracism,” tweeted Ken Chang, a British-born Chinese comic.
It’s one thing to panic, but is this level of hatred and paranoia even warranted?
Toilet paper and tissues are sold out in a supermarket as people panic buy sanitary items amid concern over shortages caused by the Covid-19 virus in Tokyo, Japan. Carl Court/Getty Images
Toilet paper and tissues are sold out in a supermarket as people panic buy sanitary items amid concern over shortages caused by the Covid-19 virus in Tokyo, Japan.
Carl Court/Getty Images
As I said, no one likes an epidemic. Yet, when we look at the numbers, it’s tough to argue whether we’re in anything resembling a full-blown crisis.
For starters, let’s look at Covid-19’s numbers. Ninety-three-thousand-odd cases, with over 90 per cent in either China (where the number of cases is slowing down) or South Korea – the latter being the country that sends the most visitors to China each year. A mortality rate of 3.4 per cent, compared with 10 per cent for SARS, which plummets to below 0.5 per cent for anyone under sixty years of age. It does kill more old people than young but that’s true of any illness. We may as well be scared of Winter (which seems silly in a post-Game of Thrones world).
As someone pointed out online – at this point you have a higher chance of winning the lottery than dying from Covid-19. You probably have a lower rate of survival in Bangalore traffic.
True, the fact that we don’t yet have a cure for Covid-19 makes it worry-worthy. But the same was true of SARS, swine flu, and Ebola, all of which were more gruesome illnesses in comparison to Covid-19. We managed to pull through those, so there’s a slender argument at best for why this time should be different.
It’s one thing to panic, but is this level of hatred and paranoia even warranted?
Perhaps the real reason the world collectively is on edge is because there was no Facebook or WhatsApp during SARS. Facebook had 150 million users at the time of the swine flu outbreak and and only 450 million people used WhatsApp during Ebola. With about two billion Facebook and WhatsApp users today, the panic button is just that much simpler to press.
And press it, we have. With bogus cures, mythical prevention methods (a cow-dung party!), and a host of different explanations as to why India has been surprisingly unaffected. Everything from yoga, to spicy food, to god has been attributed, when the truth is that India has just been plain lucky (So far. Let’s not jinx it). We’re low on the list of countries sending visitors to China, and thanks to the Chinese New Year, even business travel would have been highly limited around the time Covid-19 first struck. Research also shows the virus can only survive about 48 hours outside humans, so goods coming from China would be unlikely carriers. So please don’t believe the forward on the family WhatsApp group that tells you not to buy “ Chinese colour” this Holi. If you don’t want to buy Chinese colour, do it for the same reason we always have: because it doesn’t wash off and makes you look like an imbecile when you get into work the next morning.
Rather than lose our minds and press “forward” on every message we receive, how about we all calm down a bit and realise that the smart money says it’s going to be OK. Yes, GDP will take a short-term hit due to supply-chain disruptions (it’s not the end of the world), and yes, the Olympics may be cancelled (Usain Bolt has retired anyway; who were you going to watch?).
In an age where we decry world leaders for not being more open to other cultures, perhaps Covid-19 is showing us that when push comes to shove, we’re not so different. That’s why the markets crashed; that’s why toilet paper is in short supply; heck, that’s why Corona Beer is seeing a massive sales slump! Someone shouts “pandemic” (it’s not one) and we immediately start losing our sense of reason and behaving like we’re the only ones that matter.
Instead, how about we stick to the basics? Wash your hands, don’t sneeze on people, and don’t touch your face. Most of all, stop going after the Chinese.
None of these are Covid-19 measures, you know. We should be doing them anyway.
Adhirath Sethi is a novelist based in Bangalore. When he is not writing satire, he dabbles in darkness. His latest book, Where the Hills Hide their Secrets, is a product of such dabbles..