COVID19: What do we have to fear from a pandemic?

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The word ‘pandemic’ tends to incite fear, conjuring up pictures of widespread death and societal collapse, the Hollywood movie version of what would happen and how the world would(n’t) cope with a new, unknown disease. History lessons of the Plague of Athens, the Black Death and, more recently, Spanish Flu bubble to the surface of collective and cultural memory.

Even if the worst case prediction of case fatality rates – currently running at around 2% turn out to be true, however – and it is increasingly looking as if this is a high-end estimate that doesn’t take into account the many cases that go unreported because symptoms are mild – there is no reason to think that this will equate to societal and economic collapse; the 1918-19 influenza outbreak had a similar CFR but didn’t, even in world already economically depleted by WWI.

Pandemics with much higher CFRs – 30-60% – were needed to bring about real societal change. The UK’s medieval system of serfdom – essentially slavery to the landowners – was broken by a shortage of workers, meaning those who were available were able to negotiate better terms for their labour. Gandhi first rose to prominence by helping Indian clothworkers to demand better working conditions following similar labour shortages that resulted from an outbreak of Bubonic Plague in India in the early 20th century. Society did anything but descend into chaos on either occasion: the affected communities came out stronger and more just. Neither is collapse likely with SARS-Cov2. This isn’t to play down the situation. It isn’t to belittle the virus as ‘just a cold’ or to not care about the people who have died and will still die. But it is a call to keep things in perspective, to guard against panic, and to consider what part everyone has to play in responding to events over the coming weeks.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherReddit AMA Briefing Paper
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 25 Feb 2020


  • SARS-Cov2
  • COVID19
  • Pandemic
  • Preparedness

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