‘An overblown, press-created hysteria’

The general public would be far better served by paying more attention to the advice of medical professionals, than to unnecessary scare-mongering on the social media

Historically, the threat of a pandemic has always been the cause of (sometimes justified) fear.

Being an island which relies so much on imports for its survival, Malta has traditionally been keenly aware of the dangers of an outbreak of virulent disease: from the Bubonic plague in the Middle Ages, to the dreaded Spanish Influenza of 1918-19, to sporadic outbreaks of cholera, measles and other contagious diseases across the centuries.

But while our collective experience has taught us to fear the possibility of an epidemic, we must also ask ourselves whether our reactions to the threat of COVID-19 – the new coronavirus which originated in China, and which has now spread to four out of five continents – have been proportional to the real threat posed by this global disease.

Like any other newly-discovered virus, COVID-19 presents a challenge to world health authorities. There is, as yet, no vaccine (though one may be in place in the coming months); and it remains debatable whether Malta’s health services are fully equipped to handle an extensive national outbreak.

On the other hand, however, the danger posed by this new virus may have been overstated. In the United States, Dr Drew Pinksy (a well-known commentator on medical issues) has accused the American media of prompting “an overblown, press-created hysteria”.

Asked whether the media was ‘overreacting’, he emphatically replied: “Yes, yes, yes. We [doctors] are not overreacting. The press is overreacting, and it makes me furious. The press should not be reporting medical stories as though they know how to report it… If we have a pandemic, I won’t know how to tell that we’re actually having a pandemic, because everything is an emergency…”

Contrary to the impression created in the media, Pinksy described the novel coronavirus as “a mild form of influenza” which has a far lower global mortality rate than the common ‘flu (which kills between 290,000 and 650,000 people around the world each year).

Moreover, COVID-19 has, so far, proven fatal – with very few exceptions – only to vulnerable people who would be considered high-risk cases in any seasonal influenza epidemic. This distinguishes it from previous pandemics such as Spanish Flu, whose victims extended also to young, healthy individuals who would normally be expected to fully recover.

This view is upheld by medical authorities the world over: including here in Malta, where virologist Dr Chris Barbara has likewise minimised the cause for concern:

“We should absolutely not be worried about COVID-19. I have been handling viruses for years on end and many more dangerous viruses. We’ve had coronaviruses around for many years, like the common cold,” Barbara explained. “If people are terrified of COVID-19, why aren’t they scared of influenza which is killing more people?”

And yet, local reactions have at times bordered on the hysterical: including sudden rushes on supermarkets to stock up on essentials, in the event of self-imposed quarantine. More worryingly, the concern has also extended to open xenophobia aimed at countries which have been exposed to the virus.

Unfortunately, such reactions betray a basic lack of understanding about the dynamics of this particular virus. It is for this reason that the general public would be far better served by paying more attention to the advice of medical professionals, than to unnecessary scare-mongering on the social media.

Nonetheless, the prospect of a local outbreak – which remains very real, for the time being – is not something to be taken lightly. Malta’s business community is bracing itself for a seemingly inevitable impact: tourism is likely to be hardest-hit, while the possibility of widespread quarantine has ominous implications for local employers.

Certainly it is not illegitimate to question – as the Malta Employers’ Association is doing – who will bear the costs of lower work attendance on account of extended sick-leave. Likewise, the Unions and other social partners are justified in calling for an urgent meeting of the Malta Council for Social and Economic Development, to map out a coherent strategy for coping with the virus.

These, however, are matters to be discussed calmly and without any undue hysteria. Malta must be ready for any medical emergency that may arise; but it is unhelpful and counterproductive to exaggerate the actual health risks posed by a new virus that – at the end of the day – is not deadlier than the common flu.