A traveller walks past South Korean soldiers who are mobilised for disinfection work at the international airport amid the rise in confirmed cases of coronavirus disease in Daegu, South Korea, on March 6, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

I am a big fan of the London Book Fair. I have been there quite a few times over the years. The event, now in its 50th year, is a festival of culture, where you get to meet the who’s who of the literary universe.

I was supposed to go to the fair this week, along with several UAE journalists who were invited by the Sharjah Book Authority. Sharjah has been chosen as the LBF’s Guest of Honour this year.

I was all set; the flight, hotel reservation and the entire trip details had been finalised. Little did I know that the coronavirus would mess up my plans.

Due to the travel guidelines and restrictions set by the UK authorities, the LBF has been postponed until next year, said a statement I received on my WhatsApp on Wednesday. Not fair, I immediately thought.

It is not that I am against precautionary measures. They are necessary and even the small preventive steps can be the difference between life and death. However, as I thought to myself after the initial ‘shock’; perhaps the whole coronavirus thing has been exaggerated. I know of many who share the same thought. American Fox News’ Dr Drew Pinsky, an expert on medical matters, seemed the other day more worried about the market. He said the whole panic was a media’s Frankenstein. He told the media to “shut up”. Needless to say, global markets have so far lost more than $7 trillion (Dh25.7 trillion) — just wiped out in a matter of days. I am inclined to share his pain but then I am confronted by the maths. I am also a fan of mathematics.

History of pandemics

Let’s see. The modern world has seen all types of viruses — Mers, Sars, swine flu (H1N1) and bird flu. In the last century, there was the Spanish flu, which started in January 1918 and was gone by December 1920. Centuries earlier, in the 14th century, there was the Black Death, which also started in China and moved along the Silk Road to Iran and hit Europe few years later through the Italian port of Genoa.

The swine flu was classified as a global pandemic in 2009. It killed between 150,000 and over half a million people. The exact number is not really known. The death rate, and that is significant, was actually very low at 0.02 per cent. When compared with H1N1, the current coronavirus outbreak has spread to more than 90 countries and infected 100,000 people since January this year. There have been more than 3,400 deaths — at a death rate of 3.4 per cent as of Friday night. Most of those deaths have been in mainland China followed by cases in Italy, Iran and South Korea. The death rate unfortunately might increase as the disease spreads to more vulnerable countries.

Therefore, with a higher death rate, Covid-19 could be deadlier than the previous pandemics, to which the world probably reacted more calmly. There were no travel restrictions. No cancellation of public events and sport tournaments. Schools remained open. And I know for a fact the London Book Fair was not postponed. Here we have to turn to history — also one of my favourite subjects!

It makes sense for countries around the world to take such drastic measures to protect their population by tightening border controls, restricting public events and grounding aeroplanes.

- Mohammed Almezel, Editor at Large, Gulf News

But the world is so different today the danger may be much more serious than 15 or 20 years ago, and, of course, our increasingly globalised world doesn’t look the least like the world a hundred years ago when the Spanish flu erased up to 50 million people between the years 1918-1920. (Some historians say more than 100 million people were killed by the flu).

It was during the First World War that the Spanish flu infected more than 500 million people, according to a study published by the World Health Organisation in 2005. One theory says that the killer flu originated in the American city of Kansas. Soldiers in a military fort in the city had an in-base swine farm where they first contracted the virus. As the soldiers were shipped around the world to fight in the Great War, the virus spread to other countries. It took the name Spanish flu because according to most reports Spain was the most affected country although the disease began in America.

Potentially deadly

What mathematics and history tell us is that although people like the ‘Shut up you media people’ Dr Drew may think the Covid-19 is small in scale compared to previous pandemics, the fact is the death rate makes it potentially deadlier. Also, as the world has become more connected, the chances of the disease spreading faster and wider are massive. Thus, it makes sense for countries around the world to take such drastic measures to protect their population by tightening border controls, restricting public events and grounding aeroplanes.

The media, of course, loves a good story. And in some cases, the press tends to exaggerate. But not this time. It reflects what the authorities around the world are doing, which is absolutely justifiable. Although I must take objection to the cancellation of the London Book Fair!