The spread of a virus in China worked the British rightwing press into a frenzy.
Talk of a new strain of the coronavirus becoming a pandemic illness that could kill millions across the world was illustrated with maps showing how it might spread.
Commentators keen to spread panic compared the new virus with the Spanish flu that hit 500 million people in 1918 and killed up to 6 percent of the world’s population.
So far around 3000 people are thought to have the virus with 106 deaths—all in China. That’s less than the number who died of “regular” flu in the country in January last year.
“UK killer virus alert,” was the Daily Mail newspaper’s headline on Thursday. Its editorial said, “Infected people can journey from one side of the planet to another in a matter of hours.”
It deplored the alleged failure of the government to screen passengers quickly enough.
Calls for a crackdown are getting louder. Already some air passengers from China are diverted to a “closed” part of Heathrow airport. And there are demands for beefed-up illness screening at airports and special quarantine measures.
Panic measures such as these are designed only to create the appearance of action.
The incubation period for such viruses is thought to be around two weeks. That means few people travelling, even if they are infected, will show any signs of it.
The Chinese state is itself stoking the climate of fear.
The city of Wuhan, where the virus is thought to have originated, is now under lockdown. Transport links in the cities of Huanggang, Ezhou, Lichuan and Xiantao and other cities have been blocked. This means some 36 million people are being contained by road blocks with armed police guards, or a total shutdown of all public transport.
Of course, it is impossible to seal a mega city the size of Wuhan, but the state is primarily concerned to be seen to be taking “tough measures”.
But by compounding panic, the state is making the spread of the virus more likely. If people who display symptoms that could be a coronavirus fear being rounded up into prison-like infection centres, they will be unlikely to come forward.
That means more untreated people who may go on to infect others.
The information about the ability of the new strain of virus to pass from human to human is extremely limited. It may be that, as with previous pandemic flu scares such as Sars, the coronavirus is quite difficult to spread—or it may be more dangerous.
The only way to find out is to encourage people with symptoms to come forward in the knowledge that they will be well treated. But those in power, both in Britain and China, are more concerned to be seen taking harsh measures than doing what is likely to save the most lives.
‘Action’ just for show
There are as yet no confirmed cases of the new strain of the virus in Britain.
Some 52 people have been tested but none are positive.
But that has not stopped newspapers here calling for tougher action.
They have drawn attention to the large number of Chinese overseas students studying at British universities and suggested that they are a “threat” to Britain.
Some passengers from China are already being diverted to a “closed” part of London’s Heathrow airport.
And there are growing demands for beefed-up illness screening at airports, and special quarantine buildings.
But these measures are designed only to create the appearance of action.
The incubation period for such viruses is thought to be around two weeks.
That means few people travelling, even if they are infected, will show any signs of it.