Let’s imagine a future dystopia where we live among machines that provide a much-needed service, but through mechanical failures and user error, they kill over one million people per year. ONE MILLION.
Another 20 – 40 million are seriously injured or permanently disabled every year from these machines.
That would be the car. And it would be the world we already live in.
Imagine if you had people on fear-mongering websites tracking each vehicle death, and people sharing the grim statistics every single day. Think you could get people afraid of cars? I bet you could. I bet there would be a ton of people who would never get in them. I know people who refuse to fly, even though it’s safer than getting in a car. Because the rare flights that go down get a lot of press. And because we don’t feel like we’re in control in an airplane.
Now think about this: There was a time before the flu virus affected humans. There was a time before humans and the flu even existed. But along came humans, and along came the flu, and then humans became more numerous, and now 300,000 to 600,000 people die every year from the virus. Roughly half a million! That’s a lot of people.
In 1918, the world was hit by the deadliest flu strain ever. The Spanish Flu killed between 20 and 50 million people. 20 to 50 MILLION! More than the First World War (which helped spread the flu). Back then, medical care was very poor, and governments were so scared of panic that they told people to carry on about their business. The mayor of Chicago said everyone should go shopping and go to the movies. A lot of people died. 20 to 50 million.
That’s a big number. It’s also as many as have died because of cars in the last 30 years. Or regular flu in the last 75 years. The Spanish Flu took out roughly 3% of the world’s population. For every 100 people you knew, 3 of them died.
The Spanish Flu was worse than the bubonic plague (the Black Death). It was a more brutal modern killer of humans than pretty much anything that has come along before or since.
But think about this: In the worlds we enjoy in our dystopic and post-apocalyptic fiction, we often deal with worlds where 95% of people are gone and a mere 5% survive. The inverse of the Spanish Flu. The worst that nature has ever thrown at us wasn’t nearly as bad as our fears of apocalyptic ruin. Our paranoia will always be worse than the reality. Always.
COVID-19, the latest strain of coronavirus, follows on the heels of SARS and MERS. Research on COVID-19 continues, but it appears to be a mix of good news and bad news. The bad news is that it spreads much more easily than SARS or MERS. There are a few reasons for this: It can be spread while the infected are asymptotic; it goes airborne; it can lie dormant for some time. The good news is that it kills at a lower rate than SARS and MERS. MERS kills at an insane rate of nearly 35%! SARS has a mortality rate of close to 10%. COVID-19 appears to be less than 3%.
The total global impact of COVID-19 in the year 2020 will possibly be tens of thousands dead and half a million to a few million infected. But this strain could resurface and live among us for the rest of time. Just like other coronaviruses. Just like regular flu. Just like cars.
The great news, down the road, is that cars will one day drive themselves and possibly only a few thousand people a year will die from them. We will also one day come up with a universal flu vaccine and wipe the disease from the planet. The bad news is that 100% of us are going to die eventually. All of us. And very few of us are going to die of the flu. Even fewer will die of coronavirus.
But that won’t stop us from fixating on this new killer of humans among us. And it shouldn’t stop us from treating these new killers with respect and doing everything in our power to minimize their impact. Follow events with both perspectives in mind: This is a tragedy for the families who lose loved ones, just as it’s a tragedy for those who lose families to cancer, heart disease, and accidents. It’s also just one more of a legion of things that can get us, all of which are unlikely, so carry on with your lives without undue fear. Just maybe shop on Amazon and watch a film at home.