The Coronavirus is in a limbo state: Media treat it as a potential pandemic, while many experts regard it as not particularly dangerous. There is some evidence that information technology is turning the virus into a dud.
Despite living in a globalized and interconnected world with far more people than at any time in history, the size and frequency of pandemics are at a fizzling low. The last significant event was HIV/AIDS, which killed an estimated 36 million people, most of whom resided in sub-Saharan Africa.
Even such a tragedy pales in comparison to the bubonic plague in the 14th century, also known as the Black Death. The death toll is estimated to be between 75 million and 200 million people. In Europe, around half the population died, and in some Southern European countries, up to 70% of the population may have perished.
Although new lethal viruses emerge frequently, their impact is minuscule in comparison. SARS – another virus in the coronavirus family – officially killed only 349 people in China in 2002-2003. Although the current death toll is already now higher, there is little evidence that this will become the next pandemic. Why?
Many factors influence the spread of diseases, but information speed may play an essential role. When information travels faster than the virus, the pandemic potential is curbed.
One recent example is the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. There were more than 28,000 cases and 11,000 deaths in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. In the rest of the world, however, the disease was almost nonexistent. The United States experienced only five cases and one death.
Epidemiologists explain that Ebola does not transmit easily. If information about how to prevent infection is disseminated quickly, the outbreak is contained.
This happened in most of the world, but in the three hardest-hit West African countries, information was not available, ignored, or distrusted due to local burial practices, which involved touching the deceased during the funeral as a sign of respect.
When China experienced its first major outbreak of SARS on Nov. 16, 2002, the information was suppressed by local authorities and then later by the central government. Consequently, the lack of information caused a “super-spreader” to infect 30 nurses and doctors at a hospital on Jan. 31, 2003.
Only on Feb. 10, nearly three months after the initial outbreak, did China inform the World Health Organization (WHO) of the epidemic. By that time, the virus had spread all over the world.
With the Coronavirus, Chinese authorities reacted more quickly, learning the lesson from SARS and other epidemics, although they still may be lying about the true numbers. Paradoxically, the virus is now spreading faster than SARS because it is less dangerous at the individual level. It has a symptomless incubation period of two weeks, and some who never become ill may infect others unknowingly.
Despite these factors favoring a rapid percolation of the virus, it is mostly under control outside China. Since countries all over the world are taking precautions and reacting swiftly to new cases, the odds are against a pandemic.
The Coronavirus is a real-time test of the information theory, and, if proved, it is good news for the future. The faster information spreads and the more swiftly people react, the less dangerous diseases become.