For weeks now, information on the Coronavirus has appeared in every newspaper and headlined almost every news programme. The 2019 nCoV virus, traced back to a seafood market in Wuhan, China, has spread worldwide. The ever-changing figures currently suggest nearly 10,000 people are infected with a death toll of 213, all in China.
The World Health Organization has declared it a global health emergency and preventive measures are being taken worldwide to try and curb the infection and contain the epidemic.
Flights connecting Italy to the Celestial Empire have been suspended, while the increasingly aggressive and insidious disease becomes an obsessive fear and nightmare for its population. Events and gatherings have been cancelled, with medical personnel and civil protection on alert at airports. It is now commonplace to see people with their faces covered by masks on public transport. In Italy, there are currently only two cases of Coronavirus registered and these were two Chinese tourists in Rome. S0, while there is not much to say about the spread of infection in the Bel Paese, there is plenty to say about pandemic paranoia and mass hysteria.
However, the question now arises as to why there is so much scaremongering and media interest in the Chinese virus, yet no global coverage or attention for the more lethal viruses silently wiping out the population of sub-Saharan Africa? The most obvious, almost rhetorical, and cynically realistic answer is that epidemics sweeping the African continent do not currently represent a global threat, and are, therefore, of no interest. Axiom aside, the statistics need to be reviewed to recognise that even infections are treated hierarchically: category A diseases and category B diseases. And the selection is not down to either the mortality rate or the virus’s ability to replicate.
Deciding if a disease is of interest or not rests solely on whether the affected citizens reside in the planet’s north or south.
To better understand this observation, we need to address three viruses each currently causing a global epidemic. First is the Coronavirus, which is the subject of ongoing discussion. Next we have Ebola which, over the course of 18 months, has been wiping out the eastern regions of the DRC. lastly is measles which, in the very same country, has already caused the death of 4,000 people.
Beyond what has already been said about the Coronavirus, we need to add that contagiousness in the healthy population is between 1.5 and 2.5, that is, a person with symptoms can statistically infect another one and a half people, similar to seasonal flu. In addition, the disease does not affect children, or at least only mildly. Of the first 425 infections in Wuhan, nobody was in fact less than 15 years old and the New England Journal of Medicine has clarified as such.
Children might be less likely to become infected or, if infected, may show milder symptoms.
Additionally, the mortality rate was below 3% and the people who died from the virus were mainly the elderly or patients already suffering from chronic illnesses.
By contrast in Africa where, Ebola is historically the first epidemic in a war context, spreading since August 2018, the second for the number of people infected and the most ruthless for the number of stricken children. The infection, the most lethal virus in the world, has already affected over 3,400 people. With deaths of over 2,200, the mortality rate is around 70%, with 30% of the victims being children. These are chilling numbers and make for frightening reading, yet, the Ebola epidemic that is overwhelming people in the DRC does not seem to cause concern. The last time the media spoke about it, on a major scale, was in July when the first case of Ebola occurred in the city of Goma. Rwanda closed their border with the Congo and the World Health Organization proclaimed an international emergency. The measles infection in this same Great Lakes country seemed to raise even less interest, despite having caused 200,000 infections and 4,000 deaths from 2018 to the present day, with 90% being children.
This information shows a clear discrepancy in media coverage and attention towards the three epidemics, and the “two viruses, two standards” tagline is telling in how the world increasingly looks through a prism of “us and them” and “one side or the other”; a mindset of analysing and viewing our contingent that, in 2020, has the characteristics of a silent disease with no effective vaccine against it.
Translation by Natalie Payne