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The hidden cost of causing a panic over a coronavirus

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When the coronavirus panic hit about a month ago, my first thought was not about those who might contract the virus but, rather, about the thousands to potentially hundreds of thousands of hard-working poor people around the globe who soon would lose their jobs — and the only way to provide for themselves and their families — because of the coming panic. A panic deliberately created or exaggerated by some in the media as a cheap, easy way to increase clicks, newspaper sales, viewers, listeners and advertising rates.  

Once it was clear that the panic was not only taking hold but spreading, craven politicians predictably jumped into the echo chamber to scream “The Sky is Falling!” for partisan or self-serving reasons.

To be sure, every effort must be made to stop or contain the spread of this coronavirus. That said, I recently spoke with a doctor in the field who believes the current virus will play out much like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) pandemic of 2003. Although the doctor believes this strain is stronger than that earlier one and will affect more people, it still pales in comparison to the fatalities every year from the flu.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website reminds us that the SARS pandemic, which hit in February  2003, also was a coronavirus that originated in Asia. According to the CDC, by the time SARS ran its course by July 2003, it had spread to 29 nations, infected approximately 8,000 people and claimed about 775 lives; the vast majority of those who died were elderly or had severe pre-existing conditions.

Only eight people in the United States came down with SARS. All of them recovered.

Is the coronavirus of today a tougher strain? It appears so. But the doctor I spoke with stressed that it is still critically important to compare those past SARS statistics and the current coronavirus with the yearly influenza that hits the United States and the rest of the world. Tragically, tens of thousands of Americans (again, a majority of them elderly or with severe pre-existing conditions) perish because of the flu. During the 2017-2018 flu season, the deaths numbered approximately 61,000 — deaths which exponentially eclipsed the numbers from SARS in 2003, and which surely will be many multiples higher than the current coronavirus pandemic.

And yet, rarely is there such breathless panic over that yearly flu-related loss of life.

But panic — manufactured or otherwise — always brings negative consequences.

The CDC’s website also reports that the six-month run of SARS in 2003 cost the world an estimated $40 billion. 

That $40 billion should not be viewed as some cold statistic, however. Instead, it should and must be seen as the devastation inflicted upon real businesses, real jobs, real lives. Don’t just see numbers. Instead, visualize the faces of the thousands to hundreds of thousands of people who lost their jobs as their companies were either forced to cut back or to go out of business altogether.

The panic created over this current coronavirus already far exceeds that of the SARS pandemic. That being the case, it’s safe to assume that when all is said and done, and this strain of the coronavirus has run its course, the financial punishment to businesses and the people they employ will be far greater than $40 billion.

In 1987, when Raymond Donovan, former Labor secretary under President Ronald Reagan, was rightfully acquitted of a smear campaign and criminal charge, he famously asked: “Which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?”

Now, with potentially hundreds to thousands of businesses about to close, and hundreds of thousands to millions of people about to be (or already) furloughed from their jobs, where do those business owners and their employees go to get their livelihoods back?

Who will care for them … or about them?

Panic does have dire consequences. And those consequences are the human faces of small business owners and employees working and struggling simply to survive the hysteria induced by exaggerated reports of dire consequences from a pandemic.

Douglas MacKinnon, a political and communications consultant, was a writer in the White House for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, and former special assistant for policy and communications at the Pentagon during the last three years of the Bush administration.

Tags Coronavirus Infectious diseases Influenza Pandemic Severe acute respiratory syndrome

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