Coronavirus ‘Hits All the Hot Buttons’ for How We Misjudge Risk

Psychologists say that differing responses to coronavirus and the flu illustrate our shortcomings when it comes to evaluating danger.

Comments: 179

  1. I’m not sure what the point of this article is. I don’t see anyone panicking about the Coronavirus. People are still going to work and school, going shopping, eating at restaurants, exercising at gyms, etc. However, many people are rightly concerned about this new and emerging threat, which is still poorly understood. The scientists at the CDC and WHO have been clear that it is still far too early to determine how much of a risk the virus poses to the US population, so the author has no empiric basis for his thesis that the public is miscalculating the risks associated with this viras. At this point the risks remain unknown. The outbreak in China provides a vivid example of how badly things could go in other countries, although this is not a foregone conclusion. Prudence dictates vigilance and early preparation in the face of emerging threats.

  2. @tg : Actually, the outbreak in China provides a vivid example of how badly things could go in this country. The Chinese government has the ability to shut down a entire region of its country, fire and replace all local officials who bungled the government's reaction to the initial outbreak, and build new government-run hospitals to manage the outbreak in about two weeks. The United States government does not have the ability to do any of those things.

  3. @tg Well said. I see concern not panic and it seems reasonable. Pedantic psychologizing and this recap of the mental faults in risk assessment is not so useful except that it allows the Times to fill the content void on the front page in the absence of the real information the public is awaiting from scientists. NYTs, please report on the scientific and medical facts people require to make informed response and risk assessment not these side issues. In an op-ed this week, a top Hong Kong epidemiologist said the assembling at WHO this week would yield answers to the scientific questions (transmissibility, stats on lethality etc.) "within a week" or so. Instead of tangential filler reporting, tell us what is happeining in Geneva at WHO this week.

  4. Firstly, it is worthwhile distinguishing individual from government responses. Secondly, it is helpful to distinguish risk from ambiguity. Thirdly, risk of an activity is always to be measured against the benefits from that activity. Governments cannot respond to the flu as they can to coronavirus because the flu is already widespread and mutates from season to season. In contrast, governments can respond aggressively to prevent the epidemic from becoming a pandemic The risk of a disease it really threefold: risk of contracting it, the mortality rate, and the effects on different individuals. We don’t yet know any of these with much certainty — that is ambiguity. If the mortality rate is somewhere between that of the flu and 20 times, that is potentially highly lethal. What are the mortality rates for children or the elderly, or for the normally healthy for whom the flu is a weeklong inconvenience of binge-watching? And never measure risk by absolute numbers of deaths, but by frequency. Dog bites are more common than shark attacks but which do you want to play with? Dog bites are more common from, the most common breeds. There is no rational basis to fear contracting coronavirus in New York Chinatown. But there is in Hong Kong or Shanghai, where cases have been reported and the population density and use of public transport facilitate exposure opportunities

  5. The concerns about the Coronavirus are as much related to its apparently high infectiousness as they are to its lethality. High infectiousness could lead to a very rapid exponential spike in cases if containment fails, and could overwhelm our preparations for events like this. Flu season in the ER is bad enough, this could break systems and force emergency measures. Talking about human irrationality seems to always be a welcome topic in the press, and it is an interesting counterpoint to rational choice theory. But, in this case, minimizing the need to vigilance and preparedness in the face of this epidemic (very possibly soon to be a pandemic) sends the wrong message. We don't know where COVID-19 will end, or where the next outbreak like it may occur. Fear can prompt us to act, to better fund the missions of the CDC and WHO, and take infectious disease and epidemiological research more seriously.

  6. Based on China's reaction, it is likely more serious than we are being lead to believe, both in how many critically ill people there are and the case fatality rate.

  7. @moi Not necessarily, coronavirus has spread outside of China after all and has caused serious infections, but has overall been managed with relatively few fatalities or hospitalizations. This is not to say it isn't serious, however, particularly for the elderly and immunocompromised, and since the zoonotic origin of this particular virus (the leap from animals to human) began in Wuhan, China has a much higher infectious burden than other countries from prior spread. So it is exercising an abundance of caution in quelling that spread from going further. Both are true at the same time: from the international data, this coronavirus strain is indeed quite serious, but it's clearly managed without high mortality or morbidity in the vast majority of vases. Still, its danger to the elderly and those with weakened immune systems legitimates an aggressive containment effort when 2019-nCoV is already widespread in the community.

  8. @J. Wes Ulm It's been managed because it's at least a month behind China in terms of how many infections there and how far along the infections are in the people. This started in December in Wuhan.

  9. Excellent article. Every high school student should read Thinking, Fast and Slow by Kahneman. This book explains how and why people think the irrational thoughts highlighted in this article. Of course it's appropriate to take prudent risks (like not traveling to Wuhan). But it's also appropriate to not panic or over-react. Better safe than sorry is phrase many of us grew up with and is hard to over come.

  10. @deedubs I would humbly suggest that 'better safe than sorry' is neither rational nor irrational, it is an expression of what someone values (less risk). In many situations, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to the appropriate level of risk. Our comfort with varying levels of risk can be hard to quantify. There is no master statistical model that will let you make all decisions in your life quantitatively.

  11. Accuracy on the facts is important when dealing with a public health crisis. This article does not clearly state the level of uncertainty with the statistics cited within it. The mortality rate is a moving target. The number diagnosed is changing as diagnostic criteria evolve. R0, the replication rate, has not settled. Proclamations from CDC have ranged from this having potential to be a broad pandemic to something that may constrained. We just don’t know yet. While the principles of the article are true, it implies that coronavirus is lower risk than flu when it’s too premature to make that conclusion. It’s the wrong time for this article.

  12. When the flu hits China every year do the hospitals get overwhelmed with the sick and dying, with dead bodies piling up in hospital hallways, and even overflowing emergency hospitals built to house 2500 new patients? And this despite strict quarantine measures? Do you think there's something special about Hubei province which makes it so deadly there but not everywhere else? When you show me photos of hospitals in a province overwhelmed with the sick and dying with dead piling up in hallways because of the flu, I'll believe the coronavirus is on the same level as the flu. Until then I'll continue to believe that this new virus is in fact much more deadly than the flu...and this especially since the early evidence is that it also spreads much more easily than the flu on top of the higher mortality rate (just look at the cruise ship where its spreading despite everyone being locked in their rooms....)

  13. @R If people looked at the figures (John Hopkins) which we can't really know how accurate they are, the Chinese are reporting a 82% recovery rate, and about a 2% death rate. The rest are critically/seriously ill. Of those that are seriously ill, up to 6% get recover. So does that mean the death rate is much higher in confirmed cases? If that is the case, if we do have it elsewhere and it spreads like it did in China, we have a big problem with intensive care beds. There are hardly any spare ICU beds at anyone time. I worked in ICU in the Swine Flu winter of 2010-2011. It was horrendous, and resources made a difference to who survived. This is a NOVEL virus, which means we don't understand it yet, and it sure seems to spread fast (see the cruis ship #petridish). It causes a glass like pneumonia (CT scans) which is very unusual on imaging. I don't think people are over-reacting, I think the main stream media is UNDER reacting to what is happening in China. Unofficial reports coming from China show a very different picture to what is being painted in the main stream. If this spreads like it has in China, we are in for a rough few years and a whole different way of life than we currently know. If it doesn't, it does not mean the threat has gone away and could be an outbreak again at anytime. I am watching this closely, read a wide variety of sources and news sites, and keep an open mind.

  14. The risk is not just the virus but our society's reaction to the virus. If you get it, or if you're near people who get it, you become a pariah and can get quarantined on a ship for eternity. This is not just a health issue. It's also a scarlet letter issue and a recognition that some of this phenomenon is unprecedented (See: China) and therefore unpredictable. It's fair to be cautious.

  15. This article seems to ignore an important factor. Most people believe that a bout with the flu will be unpleasant, but as long as they do not belong to a specific risk group, they correctly see it as very low risk to themselves. Corona seems to be able to kill anybody, including medical personnel in the prime of their lives. This, at least for me, is the main marker of personal danger I should avoid.

  16. @Jacob Shalev In reality the flu does this as well, however; it, too, can kill anybody including health care workers in their prime, just like this coronavirus strain (COVID-19). The same was true of the devastating flu strains of 2018 and the swine flue pandemic of 2009, which originated in North America. If anything the Wuhan-origin coronavirus appears thus far to be sparing children, whereas the current mix of flu strains in the United States are not doing this, with children being among the most vulnerable to serious mortality and morbidity from infectious spread. Thus one could argue in some ways that the current flu in the US is even more dangerous than COVID-19, at least to children. Overall, though, the two viruses have a similar risk profile: both pose by far the greatest threat to the elderly and immunocompromised. From the limited data we have so far, COVID-19 may indeed be more virulent or contagious, but still the vast majority survive the infection, just as with the flu. But the flu (the strains most currently prevalent) appears to be more dangerous to children.

  17. What is being done to fight the virus seems necessary and laudable. We need to dedicate similar efforts to fighting climate change and its effects. Climate change is a worldwide emergency barrelling towards us. It’s already here. There are record numbers of displaced persons in the world right now, some of which is said to have been caused by climate change (rural dwellers retreating to cities that are overwhelmed; reportedly one of the causes of the Syrian war in addition to the surge of Central American’s to the southern border). In the west we’re still living our lives, trying to buy overpriced houses that one day won’t be safe or worth anything like we’ve poured into them. In that future, we may think the people of Wuhan lucky to have a functioning government managing food supplies and providing medical facilities and care and the like ...

  18. The press fuels the level of anxiety, tenfold. Each passing day, the NYT for instance, was reporting that the number of cases first was skyrocketing, then that many more cases were being diagnosed, that previously had gone undetected. Then came reports of clusters of infection, far removed from Wuhan. Generally, the picture being painted in the press was that the virus was spreading at alarming rates and uncontrollably. As a sole reader, we are left to interpret the reporting with very limited information. And thus we start to extrapolate. And exaggerate the threat. Both in terms of severity and numbers. And eliciting reactions of fear and panic.

  19. @Andrew B Yes! I was getting very nervous, and ended up skimming through scientific articles posted on twitter by epidemiologists working with the CDC and other institutions that were tracking the virus. The information I received there was concerning, but really put the impact into perspective. One of the best sources was STAT. I'm still concerned, but for rational reasons, and no longer have that sense of dread.

  20. @Andrew B It is spreading rapidly and isn't controlled actually.

  21. What about the role of media coverage on perceived risk? Even if people know that the risks are relatively low, their perception can’t help but be skewed by so-called reputable news sources maintaining “live coverage” that can’t help but constantly remind its readers about he body county.

  22. There's too little information about the Coronavirus to make a completely rational assessment of risk. Science is grappling with how to identify cases earlier, how the virus works, why there are differences in people's reactions to it, etc. With the small amount of information we have, i.e. how quickly it spreads, the "reported" death rate among the "reported" cases, my brain is definitely telling me it's a serious danger. If the US were to have the same spread rate as China, the devastation would be hard to imagine.

  23. This article leaves out one important component is assessing risk - the understanding of how society and government will react to a real danger. For example, I worry about nuclear power because the nuclear industry has a terrible record in preventing and responding to disasters and has consistently been dishonest about potential risks, while there has been - at least until Trump took office - a record of effective government response in reducing air pollution. Same with climate change - I would be less worried about it if there were any signs that governments were willing to honestly confront the problem. The signals from the Trump that he ignores science , doesn't care about the public interest, doesn't want to fund health services, and reacts impulsively do nothing to reduce perhaps unwarranted fears about the coronavirus.

  24. I am an actuary, so I suppose I am less emotional about risk. To me, the issue with the coronavirus is that we are relying on a government that is notorious for hiding the truth. Until more reliable statistics come out, we can't know for sure how viral and deadly it is. BTW, My daughter is sick with the flu, and I am watching her carefully for complications, but so far so good.

  25. @Karen Lo - which government are you referring to - ours, or the Chinese? Seems the US Federal government is also “notorious for hiding the truth” - through lies, distortions, and propaganda. How well will the US handle a public health crisis after they’ve destroyed their own credibility and underfunded public health agencies?

  26. Now apply the same psychological framework to fears of global warming. The actual economic and societal threats are really quite modest (see the U.S. national assessment, which documents only a few percent cut in FUTURE growth). Yet it is being framed as a terrible existential threat, with a highly emotional reaction. Perceived and actual risks are very different.

  27. It's surprising the author does not note in detail the role that 24/7 media coverage plays in intensifying people's perceptions of dread and danger. As Jen in the Comments indicates, there is good reason for television in particular to highlight the latest outbreak. If the majority of people who get the virus recover -- why no stories about that side of the issue rather than more scary deaths and new locations of coronavirus popping up? Just as the omnipresence of Trump spreads his despicability on our screens, so the hyper-coverage of the new virus increases our fear and anxiety. Yes, we can turn off the television, not read the articles. But that's no longer the way the world works -- and media, knowing that, profits from the kind of research into our psychology Mr Fisher includes here.

  28. @SGK One reason that you don't hear about people recovering from the virus is that in China they didn't have the ability to count them until recently. It's likely that there are very, very many people who stayed home and recovered, and did not go to be checked at the hospital.

  29. A few case histories of the mild cases would go far in relieving anxiety. There are actually very few published articles describing the course of the disease. I have seen only one article where someone described the illness (stayed home with the flu and coughed a lot - lasted a week from onset to no symptoms). There should be enough people who have recovered to generate a few news articles.

  30. Yes, the emotional impact of scary images is a factor. However, there’s a logic to it. If flu is so deadly, why are people near people w the flu wearing hazmat suits? Why isn’t everything being sprayed down w disinfectant? Why aren’t people w the flu dragged off to quarantine? Why aren’t cruise ships with flu victims under quarantine? And I could go on. From the images one could easily infer that COVID-19 is more dangerous than the flu (and that we’re not getting the whole story). Both emotion and inductive reasoning are in play re fear of COVID-19.

  31. We understand that the flu kills a lot of people but Corvus-19 is much scarier because we don’t need hazmat suits for the flu

  32. Are Hubei’s medical facilities overloaded by flu cases? I for one would like to see any menace stopped (forever) that has the potential to be like the flu every year (forever).

  33. Um, maybe. Comparisons between the flu and the coronavirus, one a well-known quantity with a vaccine that people can get to inoculate themselves for it, the other an exigent pandemic with no vaccine and an unknown fatality rate, neglect the fact that "unknown" poses a far greater risk than "known", both to the brain and in reality. It's ironic that you chose to talk about our fears of flying when there are two plane crashes in quick succession. Most of the world, including those involved in genuine risk assessment, and not trying to act more knowledgeable than the dumb reader, would agree that two very fatal crashes of the Boeing 737 Max in quick succession was fundamentally different than a statistical happening that would even out over time. The fact that for an unknown quantity, the 737 Max's algorithm for preventing stalls, for example, we tend to rate risk far higher, is not an artifact of a badly programmed mind, but a well tuned assessment function that tells us that, unlike journalists and exasperated public health students, we should be worried about an unknown causing deaths in rapid succession. The genuine concern about the coronavirus is not a fevered aberration. Some of the internet-viral reaction to it is. But people with far more experience in public health than your student do take threats seriously before they kill as many as the flu. And that's a good thing.

  34. OK, there are a lot of valid psychological issues. But this article itself demonstrates that there's a lack of basic numeracy which seems to be just as important. And addressing that would go a long way to dealing with the psychological issues. The article begins by citing one person's frustrations with others who won't pay attention to the numbers, and the punch-line is supposed to be about the relative mortality rates of the flu and coronavirus. But those rates aren't actually given, and the numbers that are given aren't enough to allow the reader to figure them out. The mortality rates -- deaths per contraction of the disease -- are key to understanding how severe this disease is. (One needs more information, too, of course, but this is the first number one wants to know.) That they don't show up here seems to be an index of how little people think quantitatively. I hope the NYT will improve its reporting in this regard.

  35. The points about risk assessment on the part of individuals are valid, but that does not mean the response to the novel coronavirus is outsized. SARS, after all, was contained, saving countless lives. And as long as there is a chance that this novel coronavirus can also be contained, the public health measures and medical interventions that are being undertaken now are not disproportionate to the risk.

  36. The reason people are so worried about 2019-nCov and not the flu is the uncertainty surrounding it. Influenza is a predictable seasonal virus that we develop a vaccine for each year. The Wuhan coronavirus has a currently indeterminable mortality rate, and the fact that people are quarantined immediately stirs up fear. The fear is, in my opinion, a bit overkill but it has some truth to it.

  37. China is locking down cities of tens of millions of people, something unprecedented in public health history. @60 million people are currently under travel restrictions in Wuhan and other nearby cities. To put that in perspective that is roughly the combined populations of the states of New York and California. I would say we are all in uncharted waters with regards to this virus.

  38. The comparisons between the flu and COVID-19 are getting tiresome. We have a vaccine for the flu and a pretty good idea of the risks and how to mitigate against them. We don't know much about COVID-19. It could end up being just another flu, but also appears to have the potential to be much, much worse, particularly given we probably won't have a vaccine anytime soon. That potential is what fuels the anxiety. I don't think the Chinese government would react the way it has if this was just another strain of flu. I'll try an analogy to look at risk. Guns kill more people than nuclear weapons, does that mean we should worry more about gun violence than nuclear proliferation? In a purely "rational" sense, yes. You are obviously more likely to be killed by a gun than a nuclear weapon. But if a nuclear weapon were to be detonated in NYC, DC, or any large US city, the consequences would be far worse than all of the gun violence in the last 40+ years combined. Check out books like The Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Taleb for good discussion about comparing "fat tail" risks to regular risks.

  39. How bad would a disease have to be for our government to lock down an entire state? Because that's essentially what China has done. Perhaps it's not that people don't comprehend the statistics being given, but that they see those statistics are strikingly at odds with the actions being taken.

  40. Another thought: We also all have a mental "template" for how this will play out. Every American has seen at least a couple of big-budget blockbuster thrillers - Contagion, Outbreak, Omega Man, 28 Days Later, a few of those ridiculous low-budget cable documentaries - that are about a global pandemic of deadly disease. We have a narrative already in our heads, and the narrative starts with a disease jumping from animals to humans, the government hiding the problem, failed efforts at quarantine, talking heads on the news growing increasingly concerned, people fleeing the cities... They don't make movies about epidemics that burn themselves out harmlessly, so that's not a story we have handy in our heads.

  41. I find this article patronizing. Show me who panicking in the US? The Chinese in Wuhan are panicking for good reason. As someone else mentioned, where are the epidemiologists in this article? Sure, for dinner talk a psychologist and student can joke about how people are overreacting to the virus. But the reality is that it is incredibly infectious. We hear about crematoriums running 24/7. We see people dying in hospital hallways. OK, so tell me, what is the real risk. The answer? We don't yet know.

  42. Had to go look up the names for these fallacies, which differ depending on the source. They are called the statistical fallacies of composition and division. One assumes that what is true about the parts is true of the whole, the other assumes that what is true of the whole is true of the parts. It is always best to remember these fallacies when reading something written about statistics by a journalist. I wrote a comment already about the irony of Max Fisher using the example of two plane crashes in succession while Boeing reels from the 737 Max. The fear when there are two quick crashes in succession stems, to put it succinctly, from the fear that they are comparable to the 737 Max -- that there is a reason why and that it is not a case of statistics producing a "batting slump". An even better example is 4 plane crashes in quick succession on the morning of September 11, 2001. Interpreting these as statistical noise would be, shall we say, fatal. Unobvious application of the fallacy of division: In general it's very safe to fly so go ahead and get on that 737 Max in the tropics. I shouldn't have worried where my friends were September 11th, just because they embarked from Logan at near the time of the attacks, planes are safe. The concern (not the panic) over the coronavirus is legitimate. That it hasn't caused deaths like the flu isn't an indication of its capability, but it's lack of pervasiveness. Doing real statistical analysis is hard, not easy, Mr. Fisher.

  43. This is a thought provoking article. I consider my own behavior and that of those around me while thinking about the article; which is what I think the point is. As a person who lives with an auto-immune disorder (MS-I can’t give it to anyone) I remain vigilant about, mainly washing my hands, using tissue, elbows, arms to open doors and use of my debit card vs. cash. I recall Dr. Sanjay Gupta-CNN saying years ago that we need to stop using anti-bacterial soaps; we are creating our own superbug through the use of these products. I don’t get the flu shot, when I’m older maybe I will. Maybe. I, personally, think it is always wise to consider others before self, you are of little use to others if you are sick. If possible, stay home for 3 days and care fir yourself, thus reducing your exposure to others. Why do we think that ‘we’ are so important that our absence will somehow perhaps mean the downfall of others? Regarding our current political situation; it is of grave concern regardless of whose at the top. In my travels around this country and others, in order to remain the beacon of hope, freedom, prosperity and all that encompasses the ‘American Dream’, perhaps we take lessons from an era that many seem to want to go back to (the greatest generation) for lessons and values to move forward. Even then, we were fighting for the equality of our own citizens who are of a different skin color. So maybe not. The human brain. It’s a crazy thing.

  44. I’d like to hear more about the risk assessments from real experts, epidemiologists familiar with and involved in dealing with the current coronavirus epidemic/pandemic. For example, the US has set up quarantine facilities at 11 US military bases located near major US airports that receive flights from Asia. Let’s hear more about the rationale for this from the people who have put these precautions in place. Are they dealing with possible, likely or worst-case scenarios? Are they being prudent or alarmist? What are their current assessments and projections for the epidemic?

  45. Three points. 1. Interesting article and effective overview of how we assess danger and threats in ways that are not wholly rational — and which likely cannot be. 2. It is interesting to consider these observations about response to the threat of coronavirus and then imagine that we are instead considering how Americans respond to the threats posted by the current administration in Washington. 3. The gratuities quotes regarding the risks and benefits of nuclear power are unfortunate and superficial. For example, they fail to not the scale of the danger. While it is possible to propose, for example, that the Three Mile Island incident affected only a handful of people, it is not possible to say that about the Chernobyl Incident. The _stakes_ of an incident affect the risk assessment, not just the likelihood that some incident might occur.

  46. most people ignore what isn't right in their faces. that's all.

  47. Risk we can calculate. Uncertainty we cannot calculate. It is inherently incalculable. So, it seems to me, the fear of coronavirus is a rational one. I take the world's extraordinary efforts to control the outbreak to be based on this.

  48. “We’re hearing about the fatalities,” he said. “We’re not hearing about the 98 or so percent of people who are recovering from it and may have had mild cases.” True. Say the fraction who die are 49%. Do you feel better if I tell you "The majority of people don't die. Here's one now. They look fine." I think most of us would easily recognize that those aren't good odds. That most of the time we fall ill we don't have nearly even odds of dying. Our math sense gets a little worse when it becomes 2% chance of dying. But a moments thought says that's a really scary rate of death. At least for young and healthy individuals, the seasonal flu has nowhere near that death rate. So that may not turn out to be the actual death rate for this virus for young and healthy. But we don't know yet. It is worth a more careful analysis and consideration. I worry this article seriously failed in that regard and many folks may find its analysis very misleading.

  49. Overall, lack of quantitative data about the dead, recovery and spreading rates (and easy to understand graphics) makes it hard to know for sure what is going on. NYTimes should create a consistent set of charts to help us make sense of what is happening. I bet the head of the CDC or WHO has access to such a basic set of tracking data. Raise the bar and start sharing it with everyone.

  50. @David Sadly, the Chinese government has still not accepted offers of help from the US CDC and has only just recently allowed WHO experts into mainland China. Even with that access, the WHO is still going to have to largely rely upon China for epidemiological data. This is all further complicated by the fact that the Chinese authorities have just this week changed their criteria for diagnosing COVID-19. It is difficult to define the scope of the outbreak when something as fundamental as diagnosing positive cases becomes a moving target.

  51. A virus becomes more dangerous the (a) higher its mortality rate is, (b) the more contagious it is and (c) how quickly it mutates. We are still in very early days. All of these factors are unknown. Furthermore, these variables are not independent. For example, the more it spreads, the more chance it has to mutate. The more contagious it is, the more it can cripple health care resources and therefore dramatically increase mortality. Not really interested in a psychologist’s opinion on the topic. Stick to patronizing your readers with cliché biases about winning lotteries or air travel safety. I’ll be listening to epidemiologists.

  52. @Ryan Hall I find it interesting that this article appears in the same paper as an article warning about spreading misinformation.

  53. So, are the Chinese also overreacting? If not, please explain why not.

  54. Yes, they are overreacting. If the virus' effect kept increasing in magnitude, and wound up killing a staggering 50,000 people, dividing that by the number of people in China results in approximately zero. There is no possibility of this virus destroying civilization or anything like that, as over 99% of the people who get infected survive. Their quarantining of entire cities and telling everyone to stay indoors is massive overreaction.

  55. @Dan Stackhouse So apparently you think that because you rounded down, 50,000 deaths don't count? Wow!

  56. @Dan Stackhouse Wonder if you'd feel that way if one of the 50,000 was your loved one?

  57. Well the news is focused on our primitive brains flight/ freeze and the frozen stare. Glued eyes sell more ads. At least with tv journalism.

  58. I wonder also if there is some implicit racial bias at play. Would people be as frightened, if, say, there were a devastating influenza outbreak in Sweden?

  59. @KEL We have MUCH bigger problems to worry about than bias with this thing. Our NUMBER ONE objective is to keep this virus out of out country. Let's keep our eyes on what is really important.

  60. @KEL I think people would be less concerned, and part of that would be racial bias, but part of it would be easily attributable to other factors. Sweden is a developed democratic country with a health sector that most Americans would likely guess is on a par with our own, perhaps better for this kind of situation. People would also likely have a greater trust in the information provided by the Swedish government. These attitudes would have a grounding in decades of experience, however vague, with what kind of country Sweden is. That said, if Sweden felt the need to handle this in a manner similar to what China is doing in Hubei, which would basically mean shutting down the entire country for weeks and effectively cancelling the biggest national holiday as a result, I'm sure people would find that extremely alarming. (Hubei is far bigger than Sweden.)

  61. If you go by the number of articles about it in the NYT, the coronavirus is the next bubonic plague.

  62. fear as an emotion existed long before even basic mathematics. we respond to new threats worse, in part, because we generally understand we have already done something to mitigate old threats. What is left out of this fine examination of threat perception is the fact that electronic media providers use the emotions generated by fear to increase their viewership (ie. to sell soap). If there is a local fire with video, it leads on the local evening news, as do stories of tornadoes in the midwest shown to people on the coasts. There must be some accountability for purveyors of news to responsibly turn down the inflammatory escalation of fears when they are unlikely, simply because the generate more viewers or hits.

  63. The flu is known and understood. The coronavirus is not. This is an apples to oranges comparison when it comes to how we assess risk. Because the coronavirus is new and not yet well understood, it makes sense that feelings of panic are heightened. There are news reports that include statements about uncertainty about how the virus has spread in some people, so that's unsettling. In addition, because the virus is new and unfamiliar, we are getting information about it in real time, and it seems like that information gets worse every day. This raises the question, "How much worse could it get?" These feelings of uncertainty are all exacerbated by the fact that the epicenter of the outbreak is a country with a questionable record of transparency, which raises questions like, "Is this worse than we even know?" A simple comparison of mortality and recovery rates is a gross oversimplification.

  64. Unlike neuroscience psychology isn't a science. Because there are too many variables and unknowns to craft the double-blind and/ or randomized controlled experimental tests that provide predictable and repeatable results. Psychology is not even a medical arts and science field like psychiatry. So far the biological genetic evolutionary fit reality is that coronavirus is a lot smarter and wiser than 7 4 billion African primate apes and their nation state leaders.

  65. People are afraid because there is little known about the transmission of this disease, and because we are relying on biased and asymmetric information from governments that are more interested in minimizing panic and economic contagion. This scenario unfolding does not have normal risk distributions, an assumption that underlies what these psychologists are saying. The lack of transparency is asking the situation worse, and to suggest that extreme fear is irrational right now is unfounded.

  66. Most informed people have assessed the risk and I don’t think anybody is freaking out except perhaps hypochondriacs who were going to anyways. The risk outside China appears to be low, but the situation is nonetheless alarming and the experts at the WHO and CDC seem to agree as much. Mr. Fisher and others who bring up the flu consistently forget to emphasize the fact that we have a vaccine for the flu. Antivaxxers concerned about coronavirus: that is irrational. Please direct efforts to critiquing them. Those of us who are already vaccinated for the flu are not in the crazy camp for being cautiously concerned about this. And let’s not ignore the fact that the Chinese government simply cannot be trusted to provide accurate information which adds to the uncertainty. As reported elsewhere the deaths reported by Beijing appear to match a perfectly simple and predictable mathematical formula. If true that is very concerning. We don't have the full picture because China won't allow it, all we know is SARS stats were surpassed in a matter of weeks and "war time" protocols are being implemented in China. Even if the global risk ends up being low, we're still left with the reality that a powerful state cannot be trusted to give accurate information to the world during a major health crisis. Where does that leave us if another outbreak in China poses an even bigger threat to the world? The concerns are more than just health-related.

  67. The writer of this column should read some of the comments regarding the public's reaction to this virus. The risk isn't just the virus itself, but the bungling method an authoritarian government uses to manage the virus. It demonstrates how necessary it is to count on front-line employees at hospitals and in the government to deal properly with an unknown and contaigous disease. Look to my hometown, Everett, WA for that example. I sit at my breakfast table confident that this virus isn't being spread in an uncontrollable manner because the good people on the front lines in Everett did their jobs. My thanks to them!

  68. Don’t neglect to mention the fact that media coverage in our hyper-connected world has been designed to amplify all of these anxiety-producing psychological responses. Fear drives engagement, and thus profits.

  69. @Jen Acknowledging that media hype is a thing, I’d like to hear more about the risk assessments from real experts, epidemiologists familiar with and involved in dealing with the current coronavirus epidemic/pandemic. For example, the US has set up quarantine facilities at 11 US military bases located near major US airports that receive flights from Asia. Let’s hear more about the rationale for this from the people who have put these precautions in place. Are they dealing with possible, likely or worst-case scenarios? Are they being prudent or alarmist? What are their current assessments and projections for the epidemic?

  70. @Jen You know what else drives profits? Letting people leave there houses, get on planes, buy things, not be quarantined, etc. Potential profit is not given up easily. That's why China basically shutting down alarms me so much. The situation has to be very, very serious.

  71. China has locked down and/or quarantined multiple cities with populations in the tens of millions, i.e., the size of New York City. I have seen experts say that this could become a global pandemic, infecting 2/3's of the world's population. If that happens those 2% fatal cases could add up after awhile. Not to mention the economic effects. The virtual shutdown of major industrial centers in China is affecting the global supply chain, causing interruptions in factories in Korea and Europe as parts from China become unavailable. I agree with the overall thesis that we are bad at estimating risk, just not sure that a highly contagious disease with a long incubation period and a 2% fatality rate is a great example.

  72. Comparing the COVID-19 epidemic to plane crashes and regular flu seasons is highly misleading, especially with quotes from Dr. Slovic such as "We’re not hearing about the 98 or so percent of people who are recovering from it and may have had mild cases." While there seems to be a 2% fatality rate (which is already worrying), the number of infected that require serious medical intervention and, possibly, life support is much higher than that. While we're hearing from a public health student, a psychologist, and an economist, I notice the distinct lack of information in this article coming from epidemiologists. Wouldn't people who study disease and its spread for a living be best suited to give a statement on risk assessment for this outbreak? By not including the opinions of doctors who work directly with viral diseases, the article itself seems susceptible to its own cognitive bias - that of optimism bias. We seem to still be in the early stages of the epidemic and, if it spreads worldwide and overloads medical facilities, there's a very good chance we'll see the Case Fatality Rate go up (due to a physical limitation on the amount of life support systems, respirator systems, etc. available in hospitals). If that happens and the disease becomes widespread, the deaths may dwarf annual flu deaths by an order of a magnitude. Furthermore, it helps to remember that the Spanish Flu outbreak was also the flu. If anything, our bias is underestimating influenza as well.

  73. @SergeyZ Psychologist here and, yes, psychology does have some modest insights to offer about human behavior and thinking. However, I’d much rather hear more about the risk assessments from real experts, epidemiologists who are actually familiar with and involved in dealing with the current coronavirus epidemic/pandemic. For example, the US has set up quarantine facilities at 11 US military bases located near major US airports that receive flights from Asia. Let’s hear more about the rationale for this from the people who have put these precautions (and underlying policies) in place. Are they dealing with possible, likely or worst-case scenarios? Are they being prudent or alarmist? What are their current assessments and projections for the epidemic?

  74. @SergeyZ another cognitive error people make, is to underestimate exponential growth. If something keeps doubling over time it may seem small at first but can rapidly get out of hand. This may seem unexpected but it’s predictable. The trouble with the disease like this is we just don’t know. We want to keep it from becoming overwhelming. So until we know, It’s very wise to take these precautions. With many flus, we are somewhat familiar with them. But when something brand new shows up, we just don’t know. The trouble is people tend to think in terms of straight line or incremental growth not exponential. This trips us up in many ways. I’d also like to see a mathematician who understands this in an article such as this one. Another problem is that when it doesn’t have a severe effect, people don’t realize that that may have been that we can change it. So they accuse others of being like the boy crying wolf. I was a little surprised at the story about the student of public health. Comparing it to the flu is not a very sophisticated reaction. Think of that movie Four Degrees of Separation, the idea was that we are only four people away from knowing any other person on earth. That’s how interconnected we are.

  75. That should have read:Another problem is that when it doesn’t have a severe effect, people don’t realize that that may have been that we have changed it with our efforts. So they accuse others of being like the boy crying wolf. I was a little surprised at the story about the student of public health. Comparing it to the flu is not a very sophisticated reaction.

  76. Quite simply, we are relying upon the Chinese government to provide us with accurate figures on the effects of this virus. They have previously proven to be unreliable and tending towards massively under reporting the effects of illnesses (see, SARS). Why should we suddenly trust them now? This is especially true considering the government forced quarantine of millions of people - to the detriment of the Chinese economy. China's actions do not correspond with the notion that this virus is no worse than the common flu. Hopefully, the Chinese are overreacting in the manner set out in this article. Time will tell . . .

  77. Risk is inversely proportional to the amount of information you think you have about something. The less information, real or perceived, the greater the perception of risk. And false information is worse than no information which is typical of the age we are living in.

  78. @AGoldstein " The less information, real or perceived, the greater the perception of risk." I don't agree with this. If you get information that 20% of people who get this virus have severe medical complications, and that it is twice as contagious as the flu, then you should perceive it as a high risk to you or your family if it shows up here. Having more information doesn't mean the risk is lower.

  79. It’s true that humans misjudge risk all the time. It’s also true that coronavirus is a new threat on top of flu. If governments weren’t reacting the way they are, it would be spread across this country within a year, leading to possibly millions of deaths. How are we misjudging this as individuals? Those who keep bringing up the irrelevant statistics about flu are the ones who aren’t judging the risk correctly.

  80. @RD what data or research leads you to the conclusion that it would spread across the nation in a year leading to millions of deaths, if left alone? We don't even know how virulent it really is, it could be similar to regular flu strains.

  81. Your article contains very good points. The Chinese government never lies nor would they intentionally suppress the free expression of facts and ideas. And Donald Trump always tells the truth and never exaggerates about anything important in our daily lives. Besides, Trump would only hire the “best” people. And he reads a great deal so he knows everything, right? The reality of the situation is that much is not known or understood. It appears to be less lethal than SARS or MERS but how it might mutate is not known. We know much about the basic flu and its prevention. We can even develop vaccines for the flu in short order. Something about this virus has the Chinese government very nervous. It would be helpful if they were more honest and open to outside assistance. No wonder fear takes over.

  82. @Mark Young, mutation is key. It can happen at any time, and many times during the life of an outbreak. And thank you for pointing out that while a lot of people die yearly from influenza, the death rate is much lower than the current death rate for COVID-19. I can't help but wonder if the "authorities" are getting concerned because the length of this outbreak and the public reaction to it has really affected the "economy," Heaven forbid! I've been seeing some pooh-poohing articles about how there's no reason to panic, we are over-reacting, etc. etc. thereby confirming my belief that governments around the world are once again pushing profits over the safety of people. People are expendable, after all, profits are sacred!

  83. I'm simply going to say that in my 46 years on this planet I have never seen 3 major cities in a country like China fully quarantined (and bear in mind the figures were a lot smaller then)plus I believe either Hong Kong or Japan thinking of quarantining a large village. Also all countries dealing with this are wearing hazmat suits etc. How media keep saying it's like the flu is really really bugging me too. Flu kills less about 0.1% - this virus at the moment is at 2%. The maths is worrying to say the least. Plus you can get a vaccine for flu and people have some immunity to it. This virus is novel meaning no one has any immunity at all. Go work out why a lot of people have concerns!

  84. @Naomi But it may not be 2%. The article addresses this. The actual fatality rate may be no more than .16%, which puts it in the same category as the flu.

  85. Slovic rightly links the current hysteria to the availability heuristic (e.g. mis-perception of risks on Airplane due to news coverage). Indeed, many more people have died of Influenza (and of car accidents) during the same time of the Coronavirus outbreak, and both examples are are currently greater threats than COVID-19. However, one massive point Slovic (and article author) have overlooked is that risk is being communicated very poorly. Everyday, the headlines show the number of new cases and the number dead. Third grade math is all you need to see that your odds are not good if you get the virus (about 1 in 50 die). You really have to pick apart the data to see that the risk is probably lower (evidence from kill rates outside of China indicate this), but most people don't have the time. Based on the facts being presented, hysteria seems a reasonable response. Isn't the bigger issue the poor communication about the numbers being presented? Seems there would be much less hysteria if media did this.

  86. @Steven Zimmerman, well if you contract COVID-19 and don't realize it until the symptoms are severe, and you live in Nowheresville, Nebraska in the middle of a medical care desert with the nearest hospital 300 miles away, I suppose you'd just jump into your car or on your horse and head in that direction, right? Death doesn't take into consideration what country you live in or whether you'll have to go bankrupt in order to pay for care if you do get sick - assuming you make to the hospital in time.

  87. Ask how we judge the risk in 6 months. We need to stop quantifying the initial response as fixed in stone public thinking on a matter

  88. Human threat perception is a pretty well-researched area. In addition to basic innumeracy, emotions and memories shaped these perceptions, leading to either an overestimation or underestimation of actual risk. The article gives a good high level explanation of this. In addition, our sources of information about risk are typically biased. High risk stories generate clicks and eyeballs, while low risk stories do not. The media therefore give stories a high risk slant. There are certainly unknowns with the actual mortality rate and speed at which COVID-19 spreads (I forget the term for that.). In part, it’s still relatively early so we don’t have complete data sets. In part, we are dealing with a Chinese government that has a track record of falsifying data AND has multiple motives to understate the risk. But the initial NYT coverage of COVID-19 accounted for this in part by showing a range of mortality/speed of infection, compared with other infectious diseases. Even at the outer edge of the range, it doesn’t indicate a particularly high relative threat. Should our medical experts continue to watch this closely? Yes. Should Americans be overly concerned at this point? Probably not.

  89. @John, when dealing with a country such as China, the one thing we can be sure about is that it is blatantly lying to the entire world about the extent of COVID-19 outbreak and the number of deaths that can be directly or indirectly attributed to it. Rather like trying to believe anything that comes out of the White House and the Trump administration.

  90. I haven't heard of young healthy people dying of flu, but they are dying due to the coronovirus. Isn't that a sufficient reason to be more concerned ?

  91. @Deepblue Dr LI, the Chinese doctor who was arrested for raising concern about so many new pneumonia patients attending in Wuhan, died recently and he was 31.

  92. Likewise, lotteries.

  93. Daniel Kahneman would describe himself as a psychologist, even though he won the Nobel Prize in economics. (There is no Nobel for psychology.) His groundbreaking work bridged the gap between the two fields. Minor point, but it should be corrected.

  94. Bad editorial. Author has claimed social scientists understand human nature, which clearly they do not. It's illegal to enter a crowded theater and shout "fire, fire, fire". In the absence of working knowledge it's possible to create panic. We see the news services like NYT drive panic through exaggeration and misinformation. This is a daily affair among newspapers i.e. drive readership by writing a few well chosen fear inducing headlines. It's true that readers need to educate themselves, but it's also true journalists need to present the news in a manner that their readership can quickly grasp the content of the message. A few well crafted graphs of viral epidemics would help.

  95. Fear one-upping (don’t be afraid of this, you should really be afraid of that) is always so helpful at times like this.

  96. “We’re hearing about the fatalities,” he said. “We’re not hearing about the 98 or so percent of people who are recovering from it and may have had mild cases.” 98% have not recovered. Very roughly 2% have died and 3% have recovered. That leaves 95% of cases in hospital/quarantine for weeks, if not months. When health care systems become overwhelmed, as in Hubei, that guarantees that a portion of that 95% will get more sick through poor care, misdiagnosis and new illnesses picked up in the hospital/quarantine. Look at the Princess Cruise ship. Those passengers are trapped in everyone's worst fear of a quarantine - they are getting sick at a higher rate than the rest of the world because they are forced into quarantine with sick people. What percentage of Americans can go into hospital for six to eight weeks and not go bankrupt? Imagine the constant anxiety of being in quarantine wondering if i. health insurance or the government will cover your care, ii. you will have a job when you get out, iii. whether you infected your frail parents, or iv. whether you infected your children, spouse, co-workers, etc. And the stigma when you emerge from hospital. The government's necessary response to the disease and the treatment/quarantine of patients would likely cause more damage to people and our country than the actual disease itself. We must continue to overreact to the nCoV until we are scientifically certain it will not recur in the United States as it has in China.

  97. The latest data suggest that for every 5 recoveries, 1 person does.

  98. I still remember an article on this very paper that showed a man who had collapsed and died in the streets in Wuhan, with captioning that implied he had died of coronavirus. Most likely this man died of some other cause, as I'm not aware of coronavirus causing otherwise ambulatory people to suddenly drop dead It's not just our simian brains that cause is to panic. Panicked media coverage causes panic.

  99. This virus is Exhibit A of the complete idiocy of one of the “mellow” Boomers favorite mantras, first dumped on America in the 90s, ominously the Boomers’ first decade of running America, the 90s: “Don’t sweat the small stuff, and it’s ALL small stuff.”

  100. You have to admit, a virus is pretty small.

  101. Innumeracy is the most dangerous plague.

  102. The elephant in the room, not mentioned in this article, is media's role in amplifying remote risks as imminent threats. If the New York Times published a daily headline counting the influenza cases reported this season, the number of traffic fatalities this year, deaths from infections, etc. readers would fear those risks. Instead, readers' brains are bombarded with ebola, mass shootings, and other statistical fantasies.

  103. @Kurt I was just thinking about how Fox has some kind of scary story featured prominently on their site just about every day. Today there's an article about the five most deadly plane crashes of all time. I've seen a lot about shark bites, stabbings and shootings that don't tend to be reported on other national news sites. And I suspect the fear-mongering makes a lot of money for them, and keeps brains (unconsciously) more locked into their offerings. Not only that, but having studied neuroscience quite a bit, the connections between scary stories and their brand of politics is affecting the thinking of their fans for the worse. It keeps amygdalae in high alert all the time, which inhibits use of the prefrontal cortex. Breaks from the news are good for the brain.

  104. @Kurt Amen!

  105. It’s well beyond headlines. Every photo and all the video coverages shows workers in full hazmat gear. They don’t wear that for flu cases? The imagery is out of a science fiction movie. It’s looks scary. The brain doesn’t have to do much work to get there.

  106. Just because humans already suffer from one widespread and reoccurring illness that has persisted for centuries doesn't mean we should be cavalier about another newly emerging virus that could take hold and bedevil us for years to come. Jumping on and containing this new Coronavirus, or SARS, MERS is the right approach. No, we shouldn't all panic, but neither should we be nonchalant. Familiarity breeds contempt. We've come to accept yearly outbreaks of influenza, some relatively mild, others extremely serious, because it's been around for centuries and the opportunity to eradicate it completely is long past. Also, many people mistakenly believe they've had "the flu" when they had some other less severe and less deadly illness, thus making it seem more benign. There is no such thing as the stomach flu, but I've heard many people claim they just had a bout of it. Make no mistake, influenza is a serious scourge that claims thousands of lives every year. That means we should double our vigilance and whenever a new disease is identified take immediate and decisive action to stop it before becomes a permanent feature of our environment. That's what epidemiology is all about, and this article completely ignores this.

  107. Very insightful article that helps put real world dangers in context. Thanks.

  108. Using flu statistics is not a good comparison with the new coronavirus because one can take steps to reduce the chances of contracting a potentially fatal case of influena - get vaccinated yearly! There is no such vaccine at the moment for COVID-19

  109. Certainly great points in this article, but every year a team of medical professionals comes to my place of employment and administers flu shots free of charge. During flu season, there are multiple reminders about how to prevent the spread of the flu. Medical professionals understand how the disease is spread. Medicine to treat the flu is readily available. Add the two points above to the fact that the outbreak of coronavirus is happening within a country that is not a democracy and actively censors its citizens ALL the time, not just when there’s an emergency. Influenza and this coronavirus have stark contrasts, particularly the lack of a vaccine and the lack of understanding of coronavirus in the medical community. I’ve been vaccinated for this year’s flu, and I know how to keep myself healthy during flu season, because I’ve been taught how to do that for the last 30 years. This article is patronizing.

  110. @Allison "During flu season, there are multiple reminders about how to prevent the spread of the flu." And in spite of that, a lot of us get exposed and catch it. The way to avoid spreading any infectious disease is to a) know when you are infectious, and b) quarantine yourself until you aren't. You can improve your odds by washing your hands and avoiding public places, but those actions are not foolproof. Most people are infectious before they show symptoms, and most people don't quarantine themselves for the two weeks necessary to avoid spreading it, so it persists.

  111. As one who is traveling for vacation to Vietnam in less than three weeks, I am understandably concerned. That said, I have yet to read an article where tourists traveling to Southeast Asia (not on a cruise ship) have contracted the virus. Until I see that, perhaps, it is best to heed the advice in this article that fear and risk are what we perceive.

  112. Actually the seasonal flus account for multiple viruses. The influenza virus also comes in multiple strains. The student combined the total for all flu deaths in a season. This is not a very accurate way to look at it. The coronavirus is one strain. Our governments are behaving appropriately to an unknown epidemic. Factors like the ease of transfer and the risk of complications are not completely understood. This virus is likely transferred as easy as any flu or cold, through particles in the air and contaminated surfaces. For now the mortality rate could be as high as 2%. Can you imagine if 20 people died for every 1000 people who contracted a communicable disease? The likelihood of someone you know dying would be very high, if this is not contained. Psychological analysis is available after-the-fact. It is not even relevant until the facts are in. Perhaps it will turnout that the coronavirus poses no greater risk than the seasonal flu. ...But we don't know that yet. Epidemiology is its own fields, so you have to ask the right questions and be aware that hindsight is 20/20.

  113. @Dr. Girl : If something like this gets out of hand, it could resemble the Spanish Flu and kill millions of people.

  114. @Dr. Girl "Psychological analysis is available after-the-fact. It is not even relevant until the facts are in." This!

  115. The article does not take into account the full spectrum of the ways in which we make decisions. While it is reasonable and rational to weigh the probability of outcomes, there is also a theorem called "minimize regret" which essentially notes that when the probability of an outcome is low, but if it occurs the consequences are terrible, we will take steps to avoid that outcome that go beyond ignoring it's low probability. While the risk of getting into an accident when renting a car is very low -- think, all those miles you've driven and never gotten into one -- the consequences of one, the potential costs and liabilities, are so great that we spend a little more to avoid that worst case. Hence the strong reaction to the new virus - the chances are low, but the consequences of entering that low probability are awful.

  116. I work in a hospital acute care environment, and a coworker began berating "the media" for overblowing the risk presented by the coronavirus, even as we prepared to gown up with our space suits to enter a room with a patient who had contracted it. This coworker complained "it's just a virus" and "the media is making a big deal out of a routine flu." The danger is that, as the number of cases and deaths grow, and if the disease should jump the shark and become a more serious threat than SARS, for example, my meat-headed coworker will continue to crow about how bad the media is, and not take heed, should corona become a more serious threat. There are millions upon millions like my friend, who simply don't pay attention to regular news sources, regardless of the personal cost.

  117. Risk trivialization has been raised to an art form over the last 15-20 years. It induces doctors to not include environmental histories when patients have medical complaints, it induces incomplete analysis of health threats, and it induces ignoring patterns and trends that determine root causes. Who would ever guess the the world's need for the chemical used to make Teflon might be outweighed by the cancers that science now associates with the chemical, how we shouldn't worry about each of the incremental things that led to the chemical leak in Bhopal, or the issue of a slight rise in the world's temperature ...after all, there are a lot of car accidents.

  118. And what might these learned men say about gun violence in United States!

  119. It's ironic the NYT would publish an article on this subject given its daily barrage of fear-stoking coverage of the coronavirus. I don't see any major media outlet reporting on the daily influenza-b infections, deaths, etc.

  120. Risk reality vs. perception Let's start with establishing a metric .. A jumbo jet plane crash (let's say 300 people) On the viral front .. How many planes crash a day with no survivors for seasonal flu, coronavirus, pneumococcal infections? But why stop there .. Let's add-in .. Gun related deaths .. tobacco related deaths (very preventable without smoking as 100 years ago there were almost no lung cancer related deaths in the US) .. Cancer .. Heart disease .. Not wearing a seat belt ..Opioid/overdose related deaths .. Etc.... You get the idea .. Go!

  121. What scientific studies are they citing in this piece?

  122. Media want clicks, panic sells. I’m not the only one who thinks the media, particularly headline writers, bear great responsibility for creating a feeling of panic. “Disturbing New Information about How Coronavirus Cam Spread” was a headline I saw that was about a report of a number of medical people infected by a single patient in an emergency surgery situation in the first few days of the outbreak before the medical people in Wuhan were aware if the virus, so no precautions were taken. Reading only the headline the impression is new unexpected transmission routes were involved, which was hardly the case.

  123. Impossible not to suggest that the GOP has been rounding down the threat from Trump & Co for the last three years. Enormously high infection rate, lots of snake oil on the market but—to date—no known cure.

  124. Dr. Fisher writes: "A classic example is airplane crashes. If two happen in quick succession, flying suddenly feels scarier — even if your conscious mind knows that those crashes are a statistical aberration with little bearing on the safety of your next flight. But if you then take a few flights and nothing goes wrong, your brain will most likely start telling you again that flying is safe. When it comes to the coronavirus, Dr. Slovic said, it’s as if people are experiencing one report after another of planes crashing..." Am I the only reader who sees the flaw in the author's chosen example? Here's a hint: Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10 2019. While history may well prove Dr. Fisher right, for the moment I'm more willing to assume the cautious approach advocated by WHO director, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, regarding the possible scope of Covid-19's reach. But maybe Dr. Fisher knows more than the WHO. The answer to that question is above my pay grade.

  125. Perhaps a greater contributor to emotion-based irrational reactions is sensationalism engaged in by the media.

  126. I’ve worked in the arena of risk-management all my life—forest fire control—and I can tell you what Paul Slovic and Daniel Kahneman say about humans and risk assessment is absolutely true but what they fail to say is how common people are supposed to actually avoid the errors of improper risk assessment in decision making. I can tell you it is not as black and white as they make it sound.

  127. The author leaves out the very real geopolitical inlfuences on the coverage of the coronavirus. In the system's competition the US and China are currently in any indicator that one "system" is superior to the other is latched upon by the rival's media systems. Given the coronavirus presents such an opportunity to Western, predominately US media, it is not surprising to see the current hair on fire coverage of the outbreak and very critical coverage of what China has and is doing to contain the virus in a very difficult situation that no nation no matter how developed is prepared for. Interestingly, assessments by the World Health Organization (WHO) which have, while recognizing the seriousness of the issue, praised China's efforts and repeatedly stated travel restrictions were not effective and even detrimental in cases, have seen very little coverage in the US because the WHO assessments run against the preferred "Bad China" narrative so important to the US for their current hearts and minds campaign being feverishly run on all fronts against the Chinese. The fact the Chinese are guilty of promoting their own narratives sometimes in contravention of the facts should not blind us to what the US media is engaged in as they take to the battlefield for the US in the propaganda war. NYT coverage of the coronavirus and other China issues largely reflects that and falls into place with just what the US foreign policy establishment wants to see.

  128. That's why we might drive to be beach but hesitate to go in the water to avoid being eaten by sharks. We're far more likely to be injured or killed by an auto accident or mugged in the parking lot, but something about the idea of being eaten by a shark scares us more.

  129. What about the unspoken variable here - the media cycle feeds and feeds on the alarm it generates. We don't get 'a series of plane crashes' affecting our psyche out of a vacuum.

  130. Mr.Fisher neglects to mention the contribution from the Media to our fears and occasional hysteria. " The Tamils of the Month" was a phrase used to describe both Media hype and attention span .

  131. The psychological talking points of this article have nothing to do with the actual risks of this virus. At this time there are many objectively large risks. China doesn't even have a reliable diagnostic test, never mind enough test kits. Nobody does yet. Modeling suggests that the transmission rate may be much higher than presently acknowledged, partly due to an unknown but evidently substantial occurrence of "super-spreaders". With super-spreaders, the range of outcomes over time could be 2 to 2.5 times worse than the best possible outcome, and the outcome is not deterministic: we cannot predict how it will go. At this point, isolation policies can at best slow things down, and they can't be maintained indefinitely. It is clearly possible for health care systems and especially hospitals to become overwhelmed. Would you like to be a cancer patient in an infected hospital? In our own country, who will pay for care for uninsured cases? It is true that many more people have probably been infected than have been counted, so there must be many mild cases. But we don't understand why older people are more susceptible. We all hope it is manageable. We all hope the risks pan out to be far from worst-case. Panic serves nobody. But psycho-speak articles don't really help us understand the situation objectively. After reading this article, would YOU travel to Wuhan?

  132. @Redant i dont' think the point of the article was to help one determine if they should or shouldn't be concerned about the virus, it was to use the virus and the global reaction to explore how people assess and respond to risk. there are plenty of other articles that help us to objectively understand the situation, but for those of us interested in discussing a different /more psycholgical aspect of the outbreak, this article does a good job.

  133. People in Western countries are thankfully no longer accustomed to any form of mass death. The last really mass death situation the US has experienced was World War II. This means that even if the COVID-19 mortality rate is as low as say 5x that of normal flu, if it becomes a pandemic the number of deaths will dwarf anything that has happened within the lifetime of 90% of the population. Also, even if it is irrational to fear deeply yourself or your loved ones getting seriously ill or dying, it is not irrational to fear how other humans will react to an unusually deadly epidemic. Part of the fear associated with COVID-19 is the fear of how it will disrupt society. Being concerned about that is not irrational even if the disruption in the end is silly.

  134. I'm skeptical that China would quarantine a whole city and build hospitals in two weeks if the mortality rate was actually 2%.

  135. @M.B. and risk the downturn in their economy which might threaten their government. Additionally a company with resources like Apple withdraws from a large computer show in Barcelona because they don't want their people to interact their despite the organizer promising that nobody from the Hubei Province would be there and everybody would have a temperature check at the gates...yeah it's just like the flu where we also lockdown whole economic regions...we are in the"calming the population phase" right now.

  136. Oddly, it seems clear that the mortality rate is far less than that, considering the reports from outside of China. China is probably massively overreacting like this because of the unwarranted panic over this virus. They want to appear to be doing everything possible to ensure their citizens' safety. Really the main fear of the CCP has always been popular rebellion, so the people must be pacified at all costs.

  137. @Dan Stackhouse We also need to consider morbidity. 10-18% of cases are "severe to critical" per Worldometers. That kind of necessary medical care for a population largely affected would strain/break any health care system.

  138. As Mr. Fisher points out, this is how — and why — terrorism works. We are literally more likely to be killed by lightning than in a terrorist attack, but our emotional reactions lead us to unreasoning fear. The whole point of terrorism is to cause terror, to lead us to irrationally severe responses that are way out of proportion to the actual danger. We instituted draconian measures to "safeguard" ourselves after 9/11, and these fears were and are then stoked by demagogues for their own reasons (I'm thinking of you, Donald). The "Muslim ban" is the most egregious of these, ignoring the actual rarity of Islamic terrorism, and the fact that actually there are more deaths due to domestic terrorism than due to jihadists. The true risk of terrorism is that we allow our reaction to it to subvert our values and give up our freedoms. It's like the immune system overreacting to an infection — it's the overreaction that often kills the patient, not actually the bacteria. This is not to say we shouldn't take reasonable precautions, trying to infiltrate terrorist groups, sensible screening at airports, etc. But we should not live in a state of perpetual panic and turn our society into a perpetual surveillance state.

  139. The mortality rate of this new virus is unknown. The number of people infected is unknown. The ease of transmission is unknown. The possibility of a worldwide pandemic is real and it will require extraordinary efforts to prevent this. I wonder if these experts have seen any of the panicked videos posted on social media by nurses and nurses aides in Wuhan--these are folks who are treating these patients. The modern city's health care sector is overwhelmed. The flu, on the other hand. I get my flu shot every year. When I do get the flu, I will feel bad for a few days then I will recover if I take care of myself. I worry about the young and the elderly and those with poor access to health care, when it comes to the flu.

  140. I would have appreciated a bit more context with the example of the Three Mile Island issue given that radiation does cause cancer and people who live near that area are still getting cancer. While yes air pollution from fossil fuels causes premature deaths related to lung and heart health...I am not sure you can say it's actually worse than the cancer risks. Or that these effects (radiation in the environment) are not longer lasting and therefore intergenerationally damaging. I imagine the public health student quoted in this article would have something to say about this example too. Please expand on something like this in the future before you toss it in as a seeming equivalent to indicate "people fear things and then that drives behavior."

  141. The author mentions one consequence of the irrationality of the human psyche, our near abandonment of nuclear power generation (which, to be honest, may actually make sense). It fails to mention another: the failure of so many Americans to get annual flu shots. The flu vaccine is far from perfectly effective; it's been estimated that it can reduce the odds of catching the flu by about half. That's still a major benefit. The vaccine is safe, inexpensive, and easy to get; most pharmacies will provide it, without a prescription. This article addresses the question: why are so many in a panic over corona virus? It should perhaps more fully address what is probably the more important question (since the answer to this question will save many lives): why don't more of us get flu shots?

  142. Another key difficulty in risk assessment exemplified by the current coronavirus, alongside those that Max Fisher correctly identifies, is the challenge in conveying nuance esp. of the "both of these things are true" variety. The human mind tends to "dichotomize" competing concerns into binary, opposing categorical boxes even if both are valid, for different and varied reasons. So it is with ideological disputes in our current bitterly polarized political environment, the way "capitalistic" and "socialist" economic features are pitted against each other even though every modern economy (including the US) needs both to function. Same with risk assessment. The COVID-19 coronavirus indeed is serious and of major concern for international spread, with some features that may make it more virulent and contagious than the flu. But the current main flu strains are also quite serious and dangerous if widespread, in some ways even more than COVID-19 -- for example this coronavirus appears to largely spare children, which the flu does not. Bottom line is that both are most dangerous for the elderly and immunocompromised, and containment is imperative, but the vast majority of victims fully recover. As a physician I myself suffered severe lung damage from a novel strain of whooping cough, even with immunization, a reminder of perhaps the primary take-home lesson here: we'll never be entirely free from the risk of new infectious disease, so eternal (infectious) vigilance is warranted.

  143. What the population is told by public health officials about the risk of contracting coronavirus in North America and what individuals see in the media or experience overseas appear to be two different things. We are told that the risk of contracting coronavirus is low. But when was the last time that populations of entire cities were on lockdown? When were supply chains stretching around the world impacted by efforts to control a disease? When was the last time that cruise ships with passengers confined to their cabins were quarantined for weeks off shore? When were travellers and expats in extricated from affected areas and quarantined at home on military bases? What messages do extreme public health containment measures taken by China and highly praised by the World Health Organization send to populations elsewhere? How can the average person without an understanding of epidemiology be expected to take into account morbidity and mortality statistics relating to influenza vs coronavirus when they are bombarded minute by minute with updates of the number of deaths caused by only one of these, coronavirus? Why, from their perspective, if flu kills so many more, are extreme measures taken only with coronavirus? I have a public health background but can easily understand, even before taking into account the factors mentioned in the article, why assessment of risk level might be high.

  144. I operate by an old maxim: Better safe than sorry. For instance, I get my water through a catchment system which uses an electric pump to get water into the house. When high winds and rain are imminent, I fill buckets with water, so if power goes out at night, I have water available for, among other things, filling my toilet tank. In 20 years, I’ve needed the buckets only three times. But the effort weighed against the consequences is small, and boy, I was glad to have the water available. Similarly, there’s been a run on surgical and N95 masks on my island because of coronavirus. They’re essentially unavailable, much like they sold out during the recent volcanic eruption. I lucked out and was in a store when a box of six arrived, so I bought them. In my assessment, I included the fact that the vast majority of food and supplies to Hawaii have to be shipped here, and inventories on my island can be erratic. Again, the effort outweighed the possible consequences. I get a flu shot every year. If there was a shot for coronavirus, I would have gotten that and probably not bought the N95s. But there isn’t, and much about the outbreak — the way it spreads, the number of infected and dead — is uncertain. Comparing it statistically to the annual flu seems only partly relevant. I think I’m making a reasonable assessment of effort versus risk, and am not acting from emotionally driven panic. I’ll end with another maxim, from my Boy Scout days: Be Prepared. I am.

  145. Constantly looking out for risk, vigilance, seems to be the mental state people seek to be in these days by over-reading the news, myself included. Sometimes I open this app 10x a day. Why? Often the headlines are the same, but my brain is looking for that shocking article that gives an emotional reaction, often of outrage or fear. We are like the cavemen keeping our eyes peeled for a predator in the darkness. Remember when we got a paper newspaper 1x per day, and left it alone after reading once? Reading the comments sections on various Trump-related articles shows how truly scared people are, many people taking the time to type outright, into the void, “I’m really scared”. Human health and justice are of course issues to feel strongly about. I think if we all tried to have self-control (ie: stop ourselves from pushing the panic button by reading and re-reading scary articles like it’s our job), if we believed it’s not healthy to over-expose ourselves to information, we would begin to feel less inundated, and we could turn those strong but not overwhelming feelings into helpful and ethical actions. When we remain in a state of fear we remain stuck.

  146. @Ellie Mayers Your comment alludes to a major problem with media coverage of world events that whips up anxiety and hysteria, the headlines themselves. Far, far too often headlines are highly misleading and appear designed to attract attention rather than to accurately describe the content of the articles.

  147. I understand the comparison with influenza, but what doesn't make sense is what is actually happening in China now. A hospital was built in Wuhan in a matter of days to handle the influx of new patients. Modern cities in lockdown. These are not routine responses to an ordinary influenza. These are extraordinary responses that have no precedent in modern times. There is no reason to believe that the disease won't spread in a similar fashion outside of China, with similar consequences. Granted, many, many people are working hard to make sure it doesn't spread outside of China, but we don't know the outcome of that work yet. Am I worried about catching this disease today? No, of course not. Am I worried about what will be happening here two months from now? Yes I am and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

  148. Agreed, especially since they brought it on upon themselves. I do not feel sorry for a country which abuses animals, both wild and domestic. Viruses are a nature's way to repay those who eat what they are not supposed to. Until China decides to promote a civilized way of living, they will spread diseases like bats do in their colonies.

  149. @Olga I hope this virus reduces their fascination with exotic animals. The cruelty they inflict on the natural world is unconscionable.

  150. @Olga Comparing the Chinese people to a colony of bats is extreme. Most people in the world are not vegetarians. This situation is due to a lack of appropriate governmental regulation, not the fault of people who live in a restrictive communist country.

  151. I agree that the flu is a larger concern for most people, but mot of the irrational fear comes from the fact that we are relying on China to relay accurate statistics. It is clear from recent history that we cannot trust any news or numbers coming out of China. For all we know, the number of affected people could be 10, 20, 50 times greater and that the mortality rate could be anywhere between 0.5 and 20% as far as I can tell. If we and the WHO had real, accurate data from a trustworthy country, I'm sure there would be a lot less irrational fear.

  152. I wonder if the experts in Wuhan likewise thought that the Chinese were misjudging the risk-- and how much ink has the NYT spent condemning their response-- all the while accusing Americans of irrational panic?

  153. Germany shutting down nuclear plants because of the nuclear plan destruction from a tsunami in Japan. Tsunami in Germany????

  154. I see concern not panic and it seems reasonable. Pedantic psychologizing and this recap of the mental faults in risk assessment is not so useful except that it allows the Times to fill the content void on the front page in the absence of the real information the public is awaiting from scientists. NYTs, please report on the scientific and medical facts people require to make informed response and risk assessment not these side issues. In an op-ed this week, a top Hong Kong epidemiologist said the assembling at WHO this week would yield answers to the scientific questions (transmissibility, stats on lethality etc.) "within a week" or so. Instead of tangential filler reporting, tell us what is happeining in Geneva at WHO this week.

  155. traffic 40,000 fatalities terrorism 100 fatalities guns. ? why doesn't the times give us a list of dangers and risks?

  156. @frankly 32 thanks for all the help. I had to look it up myself. It looks like 15,000 fatalities if you don't count an overwhelming number of suicides.

  157. This is ridiculous. China is overwhelmed and cannot handle the crisis they are currently experiencing. People are not even being allowed to get a hospital bed when they are obviously sick. The CDC says it's only a matter of time before this disease is common in our country. That means 2% of the people you know that get this disease will die. Will die. And a good percentage of this country will get this virus. Theones who do die are more likely to be old or have another disease, but why on earth would that make that OK? Would it be OK if mostly who died were children? Personally I don't know anyone who has died of the flu. I do know that everyone has gotten it at some time or another. I do not think it's OK that the elderly couple who lives next door - one with heart issues and the other overcoming cancer will probably not make it through what is coming. The point is that we have some time to plan and reduce the fatalities and to make the response less cruel (anyone up for being forcibly taken from their family or spouse?). Why don't we wholeheartedly work on that kind of response rather than shaking a finger at people who find this 2% death sentence frightening.

  158. @Kate Blue, sorry but there are differences. First, I know elderly and infants who died from complication from the flu. I also know many elderly and children who get the flu shot so that this does not happen. Currently, there is not a shot for the Chronovirus. Secondly, the elderly and and young are the highest populations, as well as those who are constantly exposed such as health workers. Perhaps quarentine is a bad idea. Maybe not. But, the flu is still more deadly at the moment in the US.

  159. Dear Kate Blue, Not sure why you're intent on increasing the panic over this, but none of what you say here is backed up. China having a problem with hospital bed numbers does not mean that everyone in America is about to get this virus. The fatality rate is less than 2%, necessarily, because lots of cases are not being diagnosed at all. If you want to be scared of something, be scared of heart disease. That's the number one killer of Americans, roughly 650,000 per year. There's no way for the coronavirus to kill that many of us. But of course, what adds to heart disease is stress, so whatever you do, don't worry about it. You could also take comfort in the fact that everyone alive today will die anyway, no way to avoid it, so might as well enjoy the time we have rather than worry about things that we cannot control.

  160. 1. It’s a highly transmissible disease we have no vaccines for that disproportionately kills the elderly 2. It’s unconfined despite major efforts 3. The media, like the NYT is bombarding us with scary articles - although they do seem justified 4. Medical workers are dying 5. The Chinese economy and other countries that depend on it are experiencing a slowdown 6. The method of transmission is unknown I don’t think anyone is underestimating risk

  161. Here's an example of this type of psychology -- Back in the early 1980's - there was a global panic centered around a new pathogen which was killing people and for which there was no cure -- Rumors of uncertainty, panic - and blame - were at forefront of many conversations between people from all walks of life -- During this time - I was riding the Broadway Local #1 subway downtown on the West Side of Manhattan -- It was a crowded mid-afternoon train - with all the seats occupied - except one - In bold marker - someone had written the following - "Did the last person to sit here have AIDS?" That seat was avoided and left empty - even as other riders sat in the adjoining seats and people stood over it -- Imagine seeing - "Did the last person to sit here have the Coronavirus?" written on a subway seat -- Would you sit down on that seat...??

  162. I would. Because I'm rational, and I know my odds of getting the coronavirus are incredibly low, even if I went to Wuhan and started licking banisters. I also know that what people write on subway seats is almost definitely not true.

  163. As memory helps guide our psyche's future reactions to reoccurring events, so too, by a similar type process, is the body able to incorporate master plans for antibodies in its DNA. These plans will provide future protection after contacting this pathogen, again. The CRISPR genetic process, which is capable of introducing healthier genes into the body of sick individuals, sometimes with remarkable improvements, is based on how blueprints for antibodies can be stored in the human body's DNA, via storing their genetic sequences. Since the coronavirus, as well as SARS, attack older individuals with more morbid and lethal outcomes, due to their less efficient immune systems, are older individuals innately too risk-seeking in evaluating the risk of viral contacts? Does their past success in their more youthful contacts with viral diseases cause these individuals to be too optimistic in their risk evaluations? Would a more pessimistic perspective be healthier for such people? Contrast older individuals and their viral contacts, say, with a pro golfer facing a 20-foot putt. In all probability, the putter will two-putt. But if the golfer is a realist and admits the true difficulty, her chances of making the putt objectively and subjectively, are small. But, if the putter is a rosy-eyed optimist and very positive about her chance of success, due to her past track record, then she subjectively overrates; and also probably ups, the chance of a one-putt. 2/14 F 11:33a Greenville NC

  164. While we’re shaking fingers let’s turn to also shake them at the media, shall we? Their insatiable urge to blast attention-grabbing terrifying headlines is perhaps the biggest culprit in the public’s inability to judge risks accurately.

  165. I find this painfully wrongheaded. To make decisions "rationally" (i.e. like an actuary), you need a reliable math model of the phenomenon (a probability distribution, say) and, of course, an assumption that the future will look like the past. We basically have these with mundane things like the flu, driving, air pollution, etc. We do not have them with things like nuclear power, terrorism, coronavirus, even air travel. To apply the same logic to those things is to use Mediocristan reasoning in an Extremistan world: you'll be (occasionally) surprised in a very bad way. What this article misses is that people are worried about coronavirus because they are worried that it does NOT follow the understood model - i.e. this time it's different. I find that to be a very rational reaction, at least for the time being.

  166. It doesn't take a psychologist to state the obvious. While we appropriately pay serious attention to the evolution of Wuhan coronavirus, let us not let it cloud out the ongoing risks from flu and other threats and the need to act accordingly. Let's keep a little perspective. The C.D.C. estimates that 42 million people got sick during the 2018-2019 flu season and 61,200 died. If quarantining cities in China and cruise ships is sensible and legitimate, maybe we should consider the same for anti-vaxxers here in America. 3,000 were killed on 9/11. Compare our ongoing response to how we respond to the 40,000 killed every year in largely preventable vehicle crashes. As with those deaths, the flu is not a "sexy" news story, so does not get nearly the coverage deserved. On the other hand, the Wuhan coronavirus, makes for excellent clickbait. That is not to deny the legitimate stories, many hooked to the unknown elements. Novelty and the unknown get attention, until what was once novel becomes the new normal. That's human nature. Think of suicide bombers. In the mid 2000s when they started happening as more than a rare "curiosity", each had huge news coverage, complete with psychological "analyses", biographies, detailed descriptions, etc. Now when there is a suicide bombing, it is simply covered as any other bombing, "suicide" simply being consigned to being an adjective. Rationally, don't worry about the new virus or airplane hijackers: worry about drunk and TEXTing drivers.

  167. I'm not so much scared by the chance my family or I may get it. The chances are much better that I'll get the typical flu, and I get vaccinated every year for that reason. I wash my hands religiously and even research the best hand washing methods (WHO has a good routine for health care professionals and I use it even though I'm a layperson). The concern I have is about the wide-ranging economic and social impact of a virus we don't know yet. The draconian quarantines and flight suspensions are the only reason this hasn't spread further outside of Wuhan, but these measures can't last for much longer without damaging the world economy. The Chinese state can't keep people indoors forever. When we get virtually all of our non-food goods from China, this is not a good spot to be in. The CCP is between a rock and a hard place. If they send everyone back to work, the virus will spread like wildfire through the country and around the world. But if they keep mass quarantines and house arrests in place, they will crash their economy. And even if this flu only kills 1% of those infected, that's still 10,000 people per 1 million. Assuming 60% of the world population of 7.8 billion contracts it (by one recent estimate), that's 46 million deaths worldwide and 2 million deaths in the US. On top of the deaths we already get from the flu and other infectious diseases.

  168. And, sadly, if that total death toll came to pass, it still wouldn't be enough to reduce the damage humanity is doing to the environment, which is on track to drive a million species extinct, and eventually make humanity extinct as well.

  169. "Not the statistics of risk, but the feelings of risk.” ... "Our feelings don't do arithmetic very well." Not quite true. If all one reads about are a virus killing dead people, then how can the mind get an accurate assessment of the risk? If two planes in a row crash, then the mind suspects the current risk has changed for the worse. If the virus hits your home town, then the risk changes again. On top of that, the quotes from psychologists above hint at the poor work that has been done to educate on this topic. That said, now go to the Health section of any newspaper, including NYT, and decide for yourself whether they are approaching panic mode or if they are giving a true picture.

  170. It is completely rational to fear the unknown more than the known. The flu kills tens of thousands every year. How many people will die from COVID 19? We have no idea. Ask yourself this. When was the last time the flu killed more than a hundred people a day, every day, with no end in sight, that too in just one city? What happens when the other cities in the world resemble Wuhan? Is there any rational reason to believe that the death toll will not be in the millions?

  171. The last time the flu killed more than a hundred people a day was in the 2018 - 2019 flu season, when it killed around 3,500 a day, worldwide.

  172. @Dan Stackhouse 3,500 died a day when the flu was present worldwide. This new epidemic is killing more than a hundred a day in one city alone. How many people do you think will die every day when it spreads worldwide? We already know that this new virus is contagious and spreads as easily as the flu. How much success have we ever had in containing the flu? It always spreads. The problem with this epidemic is not how bad it is right now, it is how bad it is going to become. These are still early days.

  173. Thought provoking article. The risk in the United States at this moment is almost non-existent. But that is likely to change. It would have been good to interview some epidemiolpgists. I read this in today Wall Street Journal: “I think it is likely we’ll see a global pandemic,” said Marc Lipsitch, a professor of epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “If a pandemic happens, 40% to 70% of people world-wide are likely to be infected in the coming year. What proportion of those will be symptomatic, I can’t give a good number.” That sounds pretty serious.

  174. The irony of the photo with the throne of people trying to purchase mask: the chance of them contracting the disease by being in such close contact with others is probably higher than the 'protection' that the mask could provide them.

  175. Another of the shortcomings when it comes to diseases is to have cut the CDC budget as the Trump administration did last year and again in his new 2021 budget. In that case I don't think they are misjudging risk but are not intelligent enough to realize they are not immune from an epidemic and simply don't care as long as they save money and can use it for more war games.

  176. Or the fact that around 40,000 people die each year in the United States alone, from car-related fatalities. (Citation: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration).

  177. Today, NYT reported six medical worker deaths out of an estimated 1700 infected which is troublesome and not on par with influenza . While most deaths appear to occur in older persons and with chronic conditions, the fact that there seems to be considerable mortality in younger infected persons suggests a more virulent virus. Until there is better data on infection rates and mortality in younger healthy individuals, it is still too early to discount the lethality of this virus.

  178. @mark : Exactly! They keep saying it's more of a problem for "the elderly" and "people with underlying medical conditions". But medical workers tend to be in fairly good health (it's a rigorous industry to work in) and of working age, not elderly. The fact that we're seeing a 0.4% fatality rate in this population is troublesome indeed. We're also not seeing how many of them have experienced serious complications and/or life-long disability as result of the illness.