'An yll wynde, that blowth no man to good, men saie.' Or so John Heywood wrote in his 'A dialogue conteinyng the nomber in effect of all the prouerbes in the Englishe tongue' in 1546.

As true now as ever it was, those who are about to benefit from Covid-19 possibly including those who have resisted the urge to panic-buy toilet paper. Once it's all over, one imagines that toilet paper will go on special at supermarkets throughout the land, or at least in the major centres, where common sense seems to have been eradicated.

Why toilet paper should be in such unprecedented demand is something of a mystery though. As far as we know the symptoms of this new strain of flu do not include diarrhoea. Perhaps it's the prospect of continual nose-blowing that's behind it.

Panic-buying is nothing new though. It's probably a predictable response to this the latest global health scare, aided and abetted by some extraordinary headlines and the propensity for the unleashing of unwarranted terror that is a hallmark of social media. Whatever happens, the word coronavirus has now well and truly taken root in the popular lexicon, although we should perhaps be trying a little harder to keep it in perspective.


All the signs at this point is that the black death this is not, although there is a link. The plague that swept through Europe in the 14th century, and, according to some, wiped out 50 million people, 60 per cent of the population, may have prompted the first quarantining of suspected victims (in the city of Ragusa, now Dubrovnik). That would have been tough, given the inability of those quarantined to shop online or to amuse themselves with Netflix.

Covid-19, which now appears to have peaked in China, where it began, seems unlikely to hold a candle even to the great epidemic of the 20th century, the Spanish flu of 1918, in terms of its virulence or toll on human life. Like most other coronaviruses before it, the fear this outbreak has generated is likely to prove totally unwarranted.

The real difference between this strain and other varieties of flu, the common or garden variety of which will likely kill many more New Zealanders this coming winter than Covid-19, is that there is no vaccine. Yet.

Like other strains it is much more likely to prove fatal for the elderly and those whose immune systems are already compromised, but overall it has a mortality rate of 2-3 per cent. If China has been under-reporting its infection rate, as some suspect, the death rate will be even lower.

And if it's the word that is striking fear into so many hearts, remember that the common cold is caused by a coronavirus. Do those who are so fearful of this strain that they are stocking up on toilet paper and hand sanitisers make a habit of being vaccinated against the (so far) much deadlier 'ordinary' strain of flu?

The take-up rate of vaccinations is reportedly high amongst New Zealanders who have celebrated their 65th birthday, but many of those who are younger don't bother.

The great majority of those who contract Covid-19 will experience very mild symptoms, and will be in no danger whatsoever. Having said that, however, having embarked upon a process of quarantining those who have, or might have it, it will be very good to see the back of it.

The public reaction to the arrival of Covid-19 in this country must at least partly be attributed to the Ministry of Health, which from the outset has given the impression that it is no more competent than any other government department. With the exception of Immigration, of course. It has done an excellent job of communicating, but insists that it has the situation under control when clearly it does not.


A passenger aboard the flight from Iran that delivered this country's first confirmed case discovered that he was on the ministry's most wanted list when he saw it on the news. Last week an elderly woman who feared she had contracted it phoned the official health line and was reportedly told that someone would be in touch with her some time over the next 48 hours. A woman who had fallen ill after returning from northern Italy, where the virus has well and truly taken hold, made the same phone call and was assured that she did not need to isolate herself because she hadn't been to China.

A woman who returned from northern Italy had reportedly spent a day at school before reporting her condition, but she had been there on a teacher-only day, so no children had been exposed. Whew!

The chances of a man who attended a concert in Auckland, presumably after becoming infectious, spreading it was, we were told, very low.

If Covid-19 is as relatively difficult to pass on as we are continually being told it is, and of its victims are not infectious until they show symptoms, which we are told is the case, there is even less reason for panic, but that isn't the real concern, at this stage at least.

The big worry, perhaps, is not that the possible mortality rate but the impact of quarantining. Last week 43 staff at Auckland's North Shore Hospital began two weeks of isolation, which must be having a significant (but denied) impact on the hospital's ability to function, but rest homes, which are surely even more vulnerable, don't even seem to be on the Ministry of Health's radar.

That's worrying Kerikeri Retirement Village chief executive Hilary Sumpter, and so it should be. Rest homes, she says, are well prepared to deal with a bout of flu, or a norovirus outbreak, and the measures taken against those threats are useful precautions against Covid-19, but what happens if the new virus is contracted by staff? Given the quarantining that seems to be the ministry's first line of defence against the virus spreading, Ms Sumpter is quite rightly asking how rest homes will be expected to function in the event of it infecting staff or residents.

The arrival of Covid-19 in a rest home could clearly have devastating consequences. As Ms Sumpter has pointed out, homes are constantly on guard against mass-infections, but the edict that Covid-19 victims be isolated creates a whole new level of concern. As things stand now, a single suspected case of Covid-19 would effectively close an entire rest home. So what happens then? That's a very good question, one that Ms Sumpter and others have been asking for some time, so far without an answer.

The fact that 43 hospital staff in Auckland are now in quarantine does not bode well for the country's rest homes, and while panic amongst the general population is surely unwarranted, the Ministry of Health should have some sort of plan not only for protecting those who are statistically least likely to survive Covid-19, beyond washing their hands whilst singing 'Happy Birthday' twice and not touching their faces, but for ensuring that they can continue being cared for in the event of the illness reaching them. Apparently it has no such plan. Just a never-ending supply of assurances that it has the situation under control.

Yeah, right.