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.
H1N1Here’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.”
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?
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.
The Lethality of the Wuhan VirusIn 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.
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.”
PrecautionsOver 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.
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.