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Malachi O'Doherty

So coronavirus is a lot of fuss over very little? See if you can buy hand sanitiser for love or money then

Malachi O'Doherty


Gregory Campbell has a 'perspective update'. We should be glad he's not the health minister

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Gregory Campbell

Gregory Campbell

Gregory Campbell

A woman goes to her GP for some routine matter and tells him while there that she is anxious about the coronavirus. Are we all going to die? The doctor tells her that she shouldn't worry. It is really just like flu and, sure, you've had that before.

There are very few people dying from the new virus and they are all people who are already vulnerable, so away on home and don't bother your wee head about it.

But do wash your hands often and don't be shaking hands with people, or kissing them.

I'm paraphrasing and reimagining a real incident which was relayed on Facebook last week. The woman who had received this comforting reassurance from her GP was passing it on to her social media contacts - "friends" - in the hope of putting their minds at ease, too, and countering a general alarm that is taking hold.

I think if I had been this woman's GP I would have given her exactly the same advice. It's just a pity that, when it gets passed on to social media, it is interpreted as, "Nothing to worry about, panic over. I have it on the soundest authority, blah blah."

Several other people have been on Facebook stressing the same point. Sure, hardly anyone has died, what's the fuss about? The fuss is about a spreading viral infection which kills a lot of people and which experts in the World Health Organisation warn us is highly dangerous.

People who are not normally known for putting compassion before pragmatism - I am talking about the Chinese authorities - were not overtaken by some kind of unfounded moral panic when they shut down cities the size of London to slow the spread of the virus.

If your bag is human evolution then you may fall into the trap of thinking that just another pathogen is not big news compared to - say - mass deaths that occurred when we - most of us lactose-intolerant - started farming and drinking cow's milk

But we are living in a time in which it is cool to disregard expertise. At least three times in the past week I have heard someone say, "See! Brexit! What was that all about then?"

Their argument is that Brexit has happened now and the sky hasn't fallen, so all the doom-mongers were wrong.

Except that Brexit has not happened yet. We are in a transition phase without any clarity yet about the final terms on which we will go our own economic way.

The argument that we are all in a flap about nothing was made in another article I ran into on Facebook, based on evolutionary psychology.

If your bag is human evolution then you may fall into the trap of thinking that just another pathogen is not big news compared to - say - mass deaths that occurred when we - most of us lactose-intolerant - started farming and drinking cow's milk.

On the scale of the routine crises that shape our organism over hundreds of thousands of years, a little erosion of population levels and a further adaptation, or burden, of the kind we are used to, like another flu, is a petty concern. But it still entails potentially huge numbers of deaths.

There are silent indicators, though, that people are taking the virus seriously. Try buying hand sanitiser in Belfast and you'll see there has been a run on the stuff

Granted, those deaths are more likely to be people like me, over 60 and prone to coughs, rather than the spry and bright young.

One of the arguments in the psychology article is that we are all too prone to imagining the worst. I don't believe that.

All the evidence I see is to the contrary. There are more people on social media poo-pooing the whole crisis than spreading alarm.

Gregory Campbell offered what he called a "perspective update", that people actually die in their thousands from flu, but that no one in Britain had died from the coronavirus yet. Thank goodness he isn't the health minister. He is about as focused on the reality of the threat as his party colleague Sammy Wilson was on man-made global warming.

Does he need it drummed into his head that the worry is not about what is happening now, but what is about to happen?

Would Gregory sleep on a train track and comfort himself with the knowledge that no one had died there before, so there was no reason to suppose anyone ever would?

There are silent indicators, though, that people are taking the virus seriously. Try buying hand sanitiser in Belfast and you'll see there has been a run on the stuff.

I am a bit alarmed, however, by the advice not to touch my face without first washing my hands. I don't think I can master the necessary degree of self-awareness. Perhaps I should just keep a supply of plastic gloves about me, the type that they use in sandwich bars for handling the red onion and chicken bits.

In India, there are ancient traditions based around hygiene. The standard greeting is a little bow with hands joined as if in prayer. I can't see that catching on here.

In my own lifetime, I have seen the French practice of kissing people of a different gender on the cheeks become common here. We haven't quite caught up with the Arab custom of men kissing each other on the cheek and, presumably, the fear of coronavirus will set back our evolution towards that.

India is giving up its traditions and you see people kissing cheeks there too now. Men holding hands was always common.

And there was the abhorrent custom of "untouchability", which had the practical value of avoiding physical contact with people who did dirty work, but extended to refusing contact with people of other castes and barring them from using the village well reserved for the upper-caste people.

We may be about to experience for ourselves that customary greeting practices are conditioned by the threat of infection.

I am going to one of those "mwah darling" parties in London next week organised by my publisher and I suspect there will be a lot less "mwahing" than usual. I'll let you know.

And the woman who took assurance from her kindly GP that she had nothing to worry about knows surely that, as soon as the doctor was finished with her, he swabbed his hands with sanitiser in preparation for the next patient.

It wasn't his job to explain to her the maths of exponential growth, how a virus that cannot be resisted will accelerate in its spread until it starts running out of people to infect.

From a small outbreak among a few people in Wuhan in January, it has reached nearly 80,000 people there and that despite lockdowns and people staying in their homes, urged not to go to work and denied the right to travel. That's a fair indication of how this thing spreads.

And still people will tell us that this is all a fuss over very little.

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