Are you still using “flu analogies” for Covid-19?

So many Malaysians continue to “not worry” about Covid-19 by saying things like, “Oh, c’mon la, flu also kill thousands of people — why don’t you panic? Dengue also dangerous mah, don’t go out la! Car accidents also banyak, so stop driving la!”

There are some severe errors with comparing the flu with Covid-19. To list just a few: We have vaccines for flus, but not Covid-19. Some people have temporary immunity from flu, but at present there is no immunity from Covid-19. Most importantly, if your elderly loved one gets the flu, chances are pretty good he or she won’t even need to masuk ICU; but if they contract Covid-19, you better start praying. Hard.

Essentially, Covid-19 is an Unknown and in the face of an Unknown, the responsible response is to heightened our alertness and err on the side of caution if necessary.

Example, if you’re a parent taking your kids to the mall, one of the (obviously) best commandments you can give your child is to Never Follow Strangers. This directive, as we all know, is 120% non-negotiable. We never say to our children, oh, if the stranger looks friendly or polite or kind, then it’s okay to follow her. We just say Never follow strangers. Period.

Because in such a high-stakes context, ‘paranoiac’ caution is critical.

However, the most important reason why you cannot ‘brush off’ Covid-19 by talking about the flu is because our country’s medical system has already ‘factored in’ flu incidents — but Covid-19 is something which our health infrastructure is not prepared for. Imagine if, overnight, a few hundred (or even thousands) of people suddenly being admitted for Covid-19. Even if a majority of them survive (and, thank God, they probably will) think about the fresh crushing weight of all these new patients on the existing load of medical requirements.

Notice I haven’t even discussed the death rate yet. At 4% mortality, if even a fifth of Malaysia’s 31 million population kena the virus, that’s 6.2 million people affected and thus potentially almost 250,000 dead. Let that sink in.

Systematic vs Idiosyncratic Risk

So that’s the flu. What about comparing Covid-19 to car crashes and dengue? The chances of dying in a road accident or being killed by an aedes mosquito is ‘almost as high if not higher’ than Covid-19, so why don’t we panic?

Two quick responses. The first, again, is that in cases like dengue it’s already a Known. So granted we still must be careful to empty our pails in the garden, at the very least our hospitals are not going to be overwhelmed.

But the most important reason we can’t compare Covid-19 and things like car crashes is because this new virus constitutes a systematic risk, whereas a car crash is what’s known as an idiosyncratic risk. A systematic risk is something which, as per its name, threatens to pervade the entire system. Like the global market system. A crash at the London Stock Exchange threatens every other stock market. A political crisis in Penang cannot be ignored by the people in KL. These are systematic risks.

On the other hand, an idiosyncratic risk is when one incident has minimal or zero effect on another. Two cars slamming into each other in Klang isn’t going to cause another car to crash into one in Melaka. Likewise, if someone gets dengue in SS2 that doesn’t much contribute to the likelihood that someone in Wangsa Maju will get dengue. In other words, idiosyncratic risk is isolated risk.

Covid-19, on the other hand, is 100% systematic risk. The spread and scale of transmission is frightening. If someone in a mall near you has confirmed being infected, that de facto means that the chances of you being infected has risen.

And this is why schools and other public places must be shut down immediately. Because it’s not so much that “children aren’t that vulnerable to the virus”, it is that when even one healthy person gets it, it will raise the probability of an unhealthy or elderly person getting it. Ergo, systematic risk.

Let’s not continue to be in denial. Covid-19 is hitting our society hard, but it is only as a society that we can contain and defeat it.

Edu-trainer, Žižek studies, amateur theologian, columnist.

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