Dr Strangefear: or how I learned to stop worrying and love SARS-CoV-2

Still from Dr Strangelove movie with coronavirus renderings

“BE AFRAID Be very afraid.” The media are pumping this message incessantly to the 6.3 billion members of the global population outside China, around 450 of whom, or 0.000007%, are so far known to be coronavirus cases.

Here in the disunited kingdom of Brexitland, we have nine confirmed cases (out of nearly 2,000 people tested). So small beer for fear junkies.

Nevertheless, the BBC’s door is always open to “disease outbreak scientist” Dr Neil Ferguson and his prediction that up to 80% of Britons could come down with Covid-19, the illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2virus – or “Pangolins’ Revenge” as it’s shortly to be known everywhere – when rather than if it launches itself on the UK like a cartoon Tasmanian Devil.

The reek of burning hair has been particularly strong in the Radio 4 Today studio, where Justin “Safe pair of establishment hands” Webb constantly harps on about Dr Fearguson’s big number as if viral Armageddon is a baked-in certainty.

Though when other health professionals and epidemiological specialists get a chance to speak on other programmes, it soon becomes clear that it is possible to have a measured conversation about SARS-CoV-2.

Webb could have had just such a discussion with Nick Hulme, chief executive of Ipswich and Colchester Hospitals, and Nathalie McDermott, academic clinical lecturer at King’s College, London, a couple of days ago.

But whatever they said, Webb kept trying to get them simply to agree with him that Covid-19 cases will inevitably overwhelm the NHS at some stage. Eventually his stumbling around in the thickets of his own framing of the issue led to a particularly obnoxious straw man-ish question that Nick Hulme politely and professionally used to put Webb back in his box.

The sad thing is that, if the BBC’s so-called flagship radio news programme could break its addiction to this type of single-track framing, we could have learned a few useful things. Indeed everyone who listened to the fearmonging-free phone-in Q&A on coronavirus on Radio 5 Live, a day earlier, definitely did.

We’ve all had coronavirus

One thing about coronavirus is that we’ve all had it. It’s a big family of viruses, which causes common colds and flu. It infects millions of Britons every year at home, school, work, while travelling and when pushing supermarket trolleys. It kills between one and two thousand in the UK every year.

It’s only when you get a strain that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome – the ‘SARS’ in SARS-CoV-2 – that health agencies really sit up and take notice. Whereas the body tends to fight flu in the nose, throat and upper airways, SARS goes for the lungs. In people with lowered resistance, pre-damaged lungs or other respiratory issues, SARS can turn into fatal pneumonia.

It so happens that my lungs were born along with the rest of me in 1956, the year of the first major Clean Air Act in the UK. For all their life, the air outdoors has generally been getting cleaner, while they’ve never dwelt in a house where all cooking was done over open solid fuel flames.

If I was instead a 63-year-old Chinese person, chances are my childhood would have been spent in a home where heating and cooking involved open wood or coal flames. If I’d migrated to a city in my 30s, like millions of others, I’d have finally got clean heat and cooking indoors – though at the price of breathing dangerously polluted air when I went outside.

In the early 1990s, lower respiratory infections were the direct cause of a quarter of a million annual deaths – over 600 people a day – in China, figures from the Global Health Data Exchange (GHDE) Results Tool show.

While mortality due to air pollution has fallen dramatically in China, the GHDE estimates that it still causes around 150 deaths each day. Not least because outside the cities, around 460 million Chinese – around a quarter of the population – still cook with solid fuels according to a 2018 study into the global burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors (GBD).

Little wonder that SARS-type infections have a huge impact in China. Millions of people with environmentally-damaged respiratory systems are concentrated in huge cities, with some of the worst air pollution in the world and, in most of the country, cold, damp winters. Wuhan ranks 146th on the WHO’s list of cities by highest concentrations of harmful PM25 particulates, with the most harmful time of year being November to February. (London, which is far from being one of the world’s clean air paragons, places 1,514th).

The coronavirus pandemic-that’s-not-yet-a-pandemic-and-may-never-be-one, over which the Western media are ostentatiously indulging in paroxysms of subtextually racist fearmongering, has the potential to turn into Spanish Flu 2.0 but only the potential.

From what’s known about its severity – i.e. it’s not extraordinarily dangerous to those without other pre-existing conditions – Covid-19 will struggle to get grip in wealthier, healthier societies before warmer weather pulls down the curtain on the northern hemisphere flu season.

After all, one reason why we Brits generally shrug off viral infections pretty easily is because we’re lovely and healthy. and that is largely thanks to exporting our old, filthy industrial air to Asia along with the old, filthy industrial jobs. We get the iPads: they get the face pads.

Yesterday the head of the Western, sorry, World Health Organisation said that coronavirus was now “public enemy number one”, presumably because might kill “consumers” in rich countries. He said it with a perfectly straight face even though the WHO’s own figures show that the single biggest cause of premature deaths and impaired life prospects across the world is our old friend solid fuel cooking.

Around 2.7 billion people, a third of the human species, are a still gradually killing themselves while feeding their families. More than one and a half million people, disproportionately children under five, die because of this each year. The 2003 SARS outbreak, with a much higher mortality rate than SARS-CoV-2, killed 774.

But don’t listen to me. Keep listening to the BBC and Professor Strangefear.