The Health Minister warns that it is inevitable. The virus has yet to arrive, but the public angst is already here.
The health minister Łukasz Szumowski has been at pains to prepare public opinion for the arrival of Coronavirus, saying that it is only a matter of time before a case is found in Poland. The fact that many Poles have travelled between their country and Italy in recent weeks and that cases of the virus have already been found in neighbouring Belarus and Lithuania does indeed make it highly likely that cases of it will eventually appear in Poland too.
The government has gone to great lengths every day to show that the country is prepared for the arrival of the virus. The opposition has been speculating that the government has been reluctant to admit that the virus was already here and that the state of preparations is not what it might be. But there is no evidence whatsoever of any delay in the information becoming available. Journalists have been sniffing around hospitals trying to find out about the first case before anyone else does. In such a climate concealing information would not be possible.
Now wash your hands
There was an amusing side to the dispute between the government and the opposition when Senate Speaker Tomasz Grodzki, himself a professor of medicine and surgeon from the opposition Civic Platform demonstrated in front of the cameras how to use a hand sanitiser. But his display did not escape the beady eye of the deputy Speaker Stanisław Karczewski from the ruling Law and Justice, who is also a medical doctor. He quickly appeared in front of the cameras to show that Tomasz Grodzki had got it wrong in his advice as prof. Grodzki had pressed the sanitiser’s handle with his thumb rather than his elbow. Deputy speaker Karczewski demonstrated how it should be done. More power to his elbow.
But it is the global implications of the spread of Coronavirus which will be worrying for Poland and beyond. The stock markets are in free fall, tourism at a standstill and GDP growth forecasts are increasingly gloomy. It is that fall-out from the virus that may prove most virulent.
There are many ways of stopping the spread of a contagious virus such as Coronavirus. But there seems to be no way to stop the spread of panic which is being caused by a mix of 24 hour media speculation and social media distortion.
It is the panic which is currently hitting us hardest, threatening mass global disruption of the economy, working lives, travel and even disrupting supply chains which could lead to shortages and then even more panic etc. The inability of our current civilisation to face risk and danger is becoming a real problem.
Are we not in danger of using a sledgehammer to crack a nut? Is the disruption and the panic not worse than the disease itself? May it not become the disease that really will hurt us? It would be ironic if more people end up losing their lives as a result of shortages of medicines and even food that might be caused if the panic really does get out of hand, than from the virus itself.
When terrorist outrages happen, the response is to increase security but at the same time to advise people to carry on with their lives taking sensible precautions. We do not stop travelling by underground or plane and do not stop holding public events or coming into work.
Should we not be tackling the Coronavirus in a similar way? It is a threat but it is not a deadly plague. I suspect that soon a way of dealing with its effects will be found even for the 2-3% of those infected who are currently losing their lives to it. Once these levels of fatalities are reduced to similar levels of the influenza virus surely the panic can be abated.
But it will of course take huge courage by politicians to face down the public health professionals and tell them, as politicians sometimes tell their security people, that they are prepared to take some risks so life can go on as normally as possible. I hope that those in government all over the globe will reflect on doing just that, because the current state of angst and outright panic is becoming more dangerous for our future than the disease itself.