Expert view: Let's get this virus out in the open

To date, Sars has killed more than 250 people and infected more than 4,000. The knock-on effects of the scare have been severe, ranging from £540m in lost revenues for Singapore, to the virtual closure of Toronto for business, to 140 boarding school pupils returning to the UK from Asia after their Easter break being placed in quarantine on the Isle of Wight. There are even concerns that the Asian economy will be tipped into a full-blown recession.

Is the public simply overreacting? Are businesses panicking and are the media in a news frenzy? Arguably not. The public is responding to the information that has been made available – that the virus is spreading and people are dying. If we evaluate the Sars scare from a risk communication perspective, certain things become clear.

A previously unidentified virus, Sars is seen as a new risk. On the whole, the media, the public and the regulators all react to unknown risks in a more profound way than to familiar ones.

Early on, we were told that the virus could live for up to three hours on an object such as an elevator button; now we are told it can survive more than 24 hours. Similarly, we have recently learnt that it mutates very quickly. The media have massively amplified the scare, partly because it is an unknown quantity.

Communicating uncertainty is always difficult, as the facts are continuously disputed and in a state of flux. What may seem true now is not true tomorrow. This leads to public confusion and distrust, which in turn leads to greater risk aversion. Among some members of my own family, there was a sigh of relief when my planned trip to Montreal was cancelled. Even my eight-year-old daughter warned me that it was dangerous to fly to Canada.

The scare has been made worse by the initial decision of Chinese government officials to be as secretive as possible about it. Secrecy leads to public distrust of authorities, and with good reason. Following China's decision to be more open about Sars, the official number of cases in Beijing has increased tenfold.

If health officials were honest and transparent, the public could make up their own minds, for example about whether flying to Hong Kong at the present time is a risk worth taking. In the UK it is the press, not the Department of Health, that is driving the debate. The focus of most news stories is on the "news" content rather than on intelligent analysis of the actual dangers by health experts.

As well as more balanced reporting in the media, I would like to see the airline industry take a more proactive stance, for example by issuing statements to show it is working to reduce levels of air recycling inside passenger cabins. I get the impression the whole sector is hoping the problem will confine itself to Asia (where it can take a short-term loss on passenger revenue). But what will happen if Sars spreads beyond Canada to the rest of North America and to Europe? How will the public react if they are then informed that the airlines could have done more to reduce the spread of infection?

Like most other people, I am concerned about this new, unknown virus, and the increasing death toll. But maybe the scare will, in the long term, lead to some positive changes. It could make people think twice before flying while sick (and posing a risk to other passengers) and encourage them to cover their mouths when they cough. It could also, as I have suggested, make airlines cut back on in-cabin air recycling.

If the Sars scare were to lead to these and other positive changes, then society would be healthier than it is today.

Professor Ragnar Lofstedt is director of the King's Centre for Risk Management, King's College, London.

News
people
Sport
FootballGerman sparks three goals in four minutes at favourite No 10 role
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Sport
A long jumper competes in the 80-to-84-year-old age division at the 2007 World Masters Championships
athletics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Radamel Falcao was forced to withdraw from the World Cup after undergoing surgery
premier leagueExclusive: Reds have agreement with Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvHe is only remaining member of original cast
Life and Style
Walking tall: unlike some, Donatella Versace showed a strong and vibrant collection
fashionAlexander Fury on the staid Italian clothing industry
Arts and Entertainment
Gregory Porter learnt about his father’s voice at his funeral
music
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
tvHighs and lows of the cast's careers since 2004
Life and Style
Children at the Leytonstone branch of the Homeless Children's Aid and Adoption Society tuck into their harvest festival gifts, in October 1936
food + drinkThe harvest festival is back, but forget cans of tuna and packets of instant mash
Sport
Lewis Hamilton will start the Singapore Grand Prix from pole, with Nico Rosberg second and Daniel Ricciardo third
F1... for floodlit Singapore Grand Prix
New Articles
i100
Life and Style
Couples have been having sex less in 2014, according to a new survey
life
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Senior BA - Motor and Home Insurance

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: **URGENT CONTRACT ROLE**...

Market Risk & Control Manager

Up to £100k or £450p/d: Saxton Leigh: My client is a leading commodities tradi...

SQL Developer - Watford/NW London - £320 - £330 p/d - 6 months

£320 - £330 per day: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have been engaged by a l...

Head of Audit

To £75,000 + Pension + Benefits + Bonus: Saxton Leigh: My client is looking f...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam