Apocalyptic scenarios of the consequences of a widespread outbreak of disease were already familiar from film and television. Playing down these possibilities wastes an opportunity to help people prepare.
As coronavirus cases have spread across Europe, the Dutch response has been self-consciously calm and collected. RIVM, the national public health agency, has downplayed the risks to the general public, and advocated three simple measures to prevent the spread of infection: washing hands regularly, sneezing and coughing into your elbow not your hand, and using paper tissues. Their web page devoted to the topic notes that these measures apply to all viruses that cause colds and flu, and so should always be used. Even as the first cases within the Netherlands were identified – some without a clear link to other known cases – no restrictions were imposed on travel or large gatherings. Among friends and colleagues, the most common reaction to an expression of concern is ridicule – there’s no need to panic, don’t overreact… it’s just like the flu.
While all of this may be intended to limit anxiety, and prevent stigma and discrimination, it may in fact be counterproductive, undermining the implementation of effective preventative measures. As the epidemic advances, given the failure to sound a stronger warning in this early stage, the inevitable implementation of a more restrictive approach will come as quite a shock. Already, the public health strategy in surrounding countries is shifting, now that “containing” the infection is less feasible, and “delaying” its spread becomes the goal. Lengthy quarantines, the lockdown of whole regions, and travel bans, previously described in the media as draconian measures, are increasingly recognized as an effective and necessary step. As Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO has now urged, many countries need to introduce more aggressive strategies in order to tackle the challenge effectively.
Comparing the coronavirus outbreak to the flu also ignores fears underlying the rising sense of urgency felt by those of us avoiding handshakes or canceling trips. While the risk of dying may not be especially high for most people, the potential disruption to society caused by an overwhelmed health service and the need to limit work, education, and travel is unknown and likely to be extensive. Too much emphasis on preventing panic in an era of fake (health) news ignores the very real concerns that are circulating. Instead, if we are encouraged to take the risks seriously, we can also take actions. Actions that might seem excessively cautious now, but could prove crucial in limiting the impact in the weeks and months ahead.
Manon Parry is professor of medical history and coordinates the MA in Medical and Health Humanities at VU University, Amsterdam