You are reading this because of your ancestors’ immune system. The odds of your predecessors surviving the myriad microbes that have stalked humanity every step of its march toward becoming Earth’s dominant species were incalculably long. More Homo sapiens have probably died from infectious disease than all other causes combined. Only in the past 150 years, owing to nutritional and medical advances, have we emerged from living in constant worry that a cough or fever or scrape might be a death sentence. But that fear of infectious disease remains embedded in the brain, as visceral as our sudden alarm when encountering a snake in the wild. Despite all our medical and technological breakthroughs, when confronted by the prospect of an epidemic, we are not that different from a farmer in an ancient Sumerian settlement making offerings to a local fertility deity so that he might survive the mysterious pustules killing everyone in town.
Or so it seemed to me when I was living in Hong Kong at the height of the SARS outbreak, a crisis I covered as the editor of Time Asia, Time’s sister publication. SARS, a coronavirus, emerged in Shenzhen late in 2002 before burning through humanity, eventually infecting more than 8,000 and killing 800 for a mortality rate of about 10 percent. I wrote a book about SARS, and as I read the coverage of the latest coronavirus to achieve widespread human-to-human transmission, which causes the disease called COVID-19, I have noticed a pattern in how the media, governments, and public-health systems respond to infectious-disease outbreaks. There are four stages of epidemic grief: denial, panic, fear, and if all goes well, rational response.