Contradictheory: When it comes to Covid-19, the heart often overrules the head

A customer queuing up to pay for 16 bags of rice in a supermarket in Singapore recently. The Covid-19 outbreak might not be bad enough for panic buying but it’s difficult to blame people for letting their heart rule their head when it comes to their loved ones.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Every year, I look forward to attending the EmTech conference in Singapore.

It showcases cutting-edge technologies and ideas from around the world.

More importantly, you get to hear the people involved speak with so much passion about what they do.

I still remember in 2018 when Shana Diez, director of build reliability at SpaceX, spoke so eloquently about what it meant to her to send a human being to Mars that I almost jumped up, raised my hand and shouted, "Send me!"

Of course, my head overruled my heart and I'm still Earthbound but I still look forward every year to getting carried away by these (sometimes not so) fantastical flights of fancy.

So you can imagine how disappointed I was when the organisers announced that this year's event has been delayed by six months.

Colour me blue.

Though, given the context, perhaps I should use a warmer hue. Specifically orange.

Last week, Singapore raised its disease outbreak response system condition (Dorscon) level to "Orange", which is like Dorscon Yellow except with additional control measures.

Specifically, the government said, "We advise event organisers to cancel or defer non-essential large-scale events". Hence EmTech's postponement.

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But is Singapore willing to endure a slowdown in work and, presumably, productivity of its 3.7 million workers when the number of official cases of Covid-19 infections is a grand total of 43?

Of course, there will always be underreporting.

For example, there are a little more than 60,000 confirmed infections of Covid-19 worldwide (as of Feb 14), but modelling by the World Health Organisation estimates the actual number to be anywhere up to 100,000 cases.

But even if there are twice the number of cases in Singapore than officially reported, the chances of meeting an infected person if I went there now would still be roughly one 1 in 40,000.

If we want to be morbid about these numbers, the mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be about 2 per cent, which adjusts the probability of non-recovery to be 1 in 2 million.

That's before taking into account that most of those who succumb to the coronavirus are the elderly or those with pre-existing health conditions.

Is it reasonable to be so concerned about this?

Specifically, is this problem bad enough that it should lead to the round of panic buying exhibited by Singaporeans last weekend in supermarkets in Johor Baru?

The truth is, this isn't the first time we've seen the idea of dangerous diseases in Singaporeans go - pardon the pun - viral.

In 1967, hundreds of Singaporean men believed they had come down with a disease called "Koro".

It was a horrifying illness where their genitals would shrink into their abdomen, reported in the papers as being due to pork tainted by swine flu inoculation.

For 10 days, Singaporeans were literally running into clinics holding on to their genitals with "rubber bands, strings, clamps, chopsticks, clothes pegs", etc.

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The thing is this, Koro is a psychiatric disorder.

It's all in the head (but not the one down there).

After the government stepped up and said the condition was psychological, cases began to drop, dwindle and eventually die out.

Don't get me wrong.

Covid-19 is much more serious than Koro.

For one thing, it's real and people are dying.

But there needs to be a clear explanation of the risks.

A big issue is that the symptoms take time to reveal themselves.

So it isn't enough to just not interact too closely with people suffering from colds or flus, you need to also be cautious around healthy-looking people.

And it spreads relatively easily.

There is genuine concern, as expressed by Prof Gabriel Leung, the chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University, that if efforts to check the spread of the virus do not work, perhaps 60 per cent of the world could become infected by Covid-19.

Again, taking a mortality rate of 2 per cent, this would represent around 80 million deaths worldwide.

I have seen people say that the seasonal flu also claims lives, so why the fuss about Covid-19?

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Well, the seasonal flu causes around 400,000 deaths per year.

You need two centuries' worth of seasonal flu infections to get to 80 million.

So, at the risk of repeating myself: Wash your hands regularly (and do so for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice), and look out for fevers.

I'll add to this one more thing: Get a flu jab if you can.

The vaccine for Covid-19 isn't ready yet but there are other bugs floating around out there, and when you get your vaccine next year, it'll probably be more complete.

In theory, all this should lower my risk of being infected if I wander into Orange-alert Singapore.

But cold hard calculation is no match for the concern of loved ones.

The context to take here is not the extremely low probability of me getting infected but the definite probability that those close to me will be worried sick.

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That was the conversation I had with my family when discussing whether or not I should attend EmTech this year.

That is the reason why I hadn't bought a plane ticket and, as a result, didn't have to rearrange plans when I found out they had postponed the event anyway.

So perhaps I shouldn't judge too harshly those who mob the supermarkets for food and other supplies.

They're probably also thinking about their loved ones so how can I blame them for letting their heart rule their head?

For the latest updates on the coronavirus virus, visit here.