A friend asked me the other day if I didn’t think the agitated media coverage of Covid-19, the coronavirus disease, was getting out of control. She knows that I have long been skeptical of the shrill alarmism that has become inseparable from public discussions of climate change. Isn’t this pretty much the same?
It isn’t, I said, and explained briefly why the two cases strike me as very different. But I’ve been reflecting on her question. Perhaps a longer explanation might be useful.
The first and most obvious difference between climate panic and the mounting anxiety over coronavirus is that there is a long history of viral epidemics, plagues, and pandemics. There is nothing speculative or theoretical about the murderous efficiency with which new diseases can burn through societies encountering them for the first time.
The Plague of Justinian that erupted in Constantinople in 541 is estimated to have killed at least 25 million people as it spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia, and Europe. The Black Death in the 14th century wiped out one third of the population of Eurasia.
The most lethal pandemic of the 20th century, the Spanish flu outbreak at the end of World War I, sent more than 50 million victims to early graves — more than all the soldiers and civilians killed during the war.