Whether the Wuhan Virus Is a ‘Crisis’ or a Crisis

Whether the Wuhan Virus Is a ‘Crisis’ or a Crisis
Empty shelves at a Vons supermarket in Burbank, California as the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States on March 14, 2020. (Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
Roger Kimball

Some entertainment, and a prediction.

Unlike the oboe, which some describe as “an ill wind, which nobody blows good,” most crises conform to the old adage that it is an “ill wind that blows no one any good.” That is certainly true of the Wuhan virus “crisis.”

I’ll get to that in a moment. First, why the scare quotes around “crisis”? Surely, I do not mean to suggest that the great crisis of our age is not really a crisis but only a “crisis”? Such an act of semantic sabotage would be intolerable in this rapidly congealing atmosphere of moral panic. It would be an insult to all and sundry, like advertising to the public not “fresh fish” but “‘fresh’ fish.” You see the difference.

I am certainly not going to wander down that path of ontological depreciation, slyly suggesting that this latest Chinese import is anything less than a total international emergency of the severest kind. Like that chap at the beginning of “The Pickwick Papers,” who assured Mr. Pickwick that he had employed the term “humbug” merely in a “Pickwickean sense,” so it is with my deployment of quotation marks around the “crisis.” I hope that my readers will be as understanding as Mr. Pickwick was.


Here’s my reasoning. In another recent column on the most important story of our lifetime, I wrote about the 2009 H1N1 flu. "There were,” I said, “115,000 cases in the United States, 15,000 hospitalizations, 3,500 deaths.”
It turns out that I vastly understated the numbers. According to the the CDC, there were actually some 50 million cases of the H1N1 flu, approximately 270,000 hospitalizations, and more than 12,000 deaths.

Was that a crisis? Or only a “crisis”? Do you remember any emergency orders to ban travel, close restaurants, forbid sporting events, or interdict large gatherings of people?

I don’t either. And I take that to mean that people, while probably regarding the H1N1 flu with justified trepidation, did not for all that hit the panic button over it. We are well into the Wuhan flu epidemic—or let’s say “pandemic” because it sounds scarier—and in the United States we have a total of 3300-odd cases and 62 deaths. That’s as of this afternoon. Check back at this handy site for updates.

Here’s what I think you’ll find if you track things for the next week. The number of cases will go up by 500-1000 cases per day for the next couple of days. Then the increase will start to decline. The number of deaths will also go up, but modestly. I suspect that by the end of this coming week the total number of cases will be around 6000, the total number of deaths 100-150. For context, so far this year, the total number of deaths from the common or non-Wuhan flu is about 14,000.

I say all of this to justify that pair of quotation marks around the word “crisis.”

The Lethality of the Wuhan Virus

In another sense, alas, the quotation marks are completely unjustified. In the last couple of paragraphs, I was just talking about the medical threat of the Wuhan virus, which I believe to be low unless you are 1. elderly and 2. in poor health. Then it is deadly. But then so is the regular flu and any number of other ailments.

Writ large, however—which is to say, considered as a social, psychological, political, and economic phenomenon—the Wuhan virus is positively lethal.

Over the last couple of days, the most frequent form of spam email to litter my inbox has been notices from clubs, restaurants, and various state and local authorities. These communiqués generally have two parts. The first part involves a little virtue-signaling and expressions of humanitarian concern. Using the words “safety” and “community” is crucial. Also “social distancing.” There follows a bit of pseudo- or mock-medical jargon, often salted with some statistics, and then the announcement that whatever was the institution or activity would be cancelled.

“In rapidly expanding epidemics like this one,” a typical notice read, “quick action to prevent further virus transmission can save many lives. The only way it can be contained is through immediate social distancing to prevent exposure to those that are infected.” Sometimes dates for the cancellation are included, often, though, it is “until further notice.”

That is the main current of notification. But it creates a sort of wake or tributary current in which many individual hortatory expostulations can congregate. One community newsletter is, like Brutus’s legions before Philippi, “brimful” of this sort of thing.

“Act today or people will die,” screamed the heading of one concerned posting. “I would love to say yes to my kids when they ask to see their friends,” ran another, “but the sooner we all take responsibility for ourselves and enforce social distancing for our kids, the sooner this will be over.” The author of this post at least had a since of humor, for she went on to assert “I’m not judging, just asking everyone to please let’s all do our part to slow the spread.”

What makes this funny, of course, is the assertion “I’m not judging” when everyone knows that the whole point of such declarations is to pass judgment. In fact, a two-fold judgment is intended: a negative judgment against any poor slob who might deign to disagree with the risk assessment assumed by such statements, and an implied positive judgment on the sterling moral character of the person who emitted the advisory for the benefit of mankind.


Over the past few weeks as the world got used to pronouncing the phrase “coronavirus” and learned new bits of jargon like “social distancing,” I have on a couple of occasions quoted, with approbation, Benjamin Jowett’s observation that “Precautions are always blamed. When they are successful, they are said to be unnecessary.”

Precautions are one thing, a good thing. Panic is another thing, and a bad one. By all means, wash your hands, be careful when coughing or sneezing, take reasonable precautions. But what we are witnessing now is an access of irrational hysteria whose end is less safety than sanctimoniousness.

It also, it is worth noting, plays right into the hands of power-hungry politicians who like nothing better than to forbid whatever it is they have neglected to make mandatory. These are the folks who stand to benefit by the ill wind of the Wuhan virus. Anyone who doubts this should ponder the case of Champaign, Illinois, whose city council just voted itself emergency powers to deal with the crisis, or “crisis.”

My friend David Horowitz likes to say “scratch a liberal and you’ll discover a totalitarian screaming to get out.” The evolution of the reaction and overreaction to the Wuhan flu is a textbook case illustrating the truth of that observation.

Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of the The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia.”
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Roger Kimball is the editor and publisher of The New Criterion and publisher of Encounter Books. His most recent book is “Where Next? Western Civilization at the Crossroads.”
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