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It’s Not Coronavirus That Scares Me, It’s How Everyone's Reacting To It

Scary things are scary.

And things don’t get much scarier than viruses. We usually have at least some control over where and how we encounter the things that can do us harm -- cars, sharks, drunks -- but viruses? They’re invisible, they’re dangerous, and you don’t have to do much of anything to get infected.

But when people get scared, they panic. And panicking people can be scary in their own right. You only have to visit your local supermarket to see Australians are already starting to act irrationally.

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Some Australians are struggling to get hold of basic household items as Coronavirus panic buying has hit certain supermarkets and chemists, but shoppers have been told 'there's no reason' to do it.

It’s always handy to have a few extra rolls of toilet paper around, but people are currently hoarding the stuff like they’ve heard diarrhoea is a coronavirus symptom. Are plumbers having a run on people wanting to have bidets installed?

It’s one thing to follow the experts' advice and slowly collect a few extra items just in case you end up stuck at home for a few weeks. People with medical conditions should obviously be making sure they have the medicines they need on hand. But a lot of what’s currently going on verges on hoarding -- and that does more harm than good.

Having a carton of hand sanitiser at home might make you feel safer, but is it really useful? Yes, hand washing is vital in slowing or stopping the spread of the virus -- but it’s soap and water that really gets your hands clean, and by all accounts the soap shelves remain fully stocked.

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As for masks, time and again experts have said they’re not particularly handy when it comes to protecting yourself from coronavirus (they are useful if you actually have the virus and want to stop spreading it through your coughing). Medical professionals need them more than the general public, so hoarding masks could actually make things worse.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an irrational panic without people looking for someone to blame. And given that the coronavirus originated in China, what better time for some good old-fashioned Aussie racism? Just last week, parents at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne refused to let medical staff “of Asian appearance” treat their children.

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It’d be easy -- and accurate -- to make a comment here about how racism has killed more people to date in Australia than coronavirus. I'm not saying that to be glib about coronavirus (or racism). The numbers provide perspective. One person has died from the virus in Australia. Every year, roughly 3,500 people die from regular flu.

As for infected Australians, currently the number is extremely low, with almost every case tracked back to an overseas source. There’s only been a handful of person-to-person cases here. Peter Collingnon, an infectious diseases doctor in Canberra, appears not to be alarmed. "This is less infectious than I would have expected," he told the ABC. "It appears that about two percent of people that have had close contact [with an infected individual] may acquire the virus."

Coles in Chatswood, on Sydney's Lower North Shore, has had its shelves tripped bare. (Image: 10 News First)

When it comes to people’s behaviour though, there are many more variables. As long as we don’t know how bad things are going to get with the coronavirus, people are going to panic.

Fortunately, what we do know is giving us a reasonably good idea of what to expect. For most people, while the symptoms (dry cough, fever, shortness of breath) aren’t great, their infection will prove to be mild. At the moment it’s assumed around 20 per cent of people infected get a more severe strain, but as we learn more that percentage will drop -- as will the percentage of people it kills (currently around two per cent).

That’s because while many of the serious and fatal cases are known, experts believe a large number of mild cases overseas are going undetected. If someone just has a cough for a week, chances are they’re not going to worry, let alone rush to get checked. And in parts of the world where the number of cases is high (like Italy), it’s partially due to widespread testing, not because the disease is spreading abnormally fast. More testing means more diagnoses -- and not everyone who actually has the virus is symptomatic.

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The fact that Australia has a strong health care system where experts are providing the public with accurate information is a big plus. Countries where information is restricted (China at first, Iran at the moment) often find diseases spread quickly because their citizens don’t know to take precautions. (The flip side, of course, is that thanks to China's aggressive treatment system, growth of the virus appears to have slowed there.)

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That said, while for most people the coronavirus may not be worse than the flu, it’s still a virus that our bodies have no natural defences against. That’s why experts are stressing things like getting a flu shot (so you don’t have coronavirus and the flu at the same time), and general health measures like washing your hands and avoiding touching your face.

The more difficult we can make it for the virus to spread, the more likely it is that our medical system will be able to cope with those who do get seriously ill. And the biggest thing we can do to help make sure that happens is not panic. If we buy every roll of toilet paper, Aussies might die with shitty arses rather than runny noses.

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