Novel and Deadly

When we wrote a short post about the Wuhan virus 10 days ago, it was a non-topic. 10 days later, fear and loathing spread into each corner or the world, including remote Alps valleys more familiar with cheese (cheese is made with bacteria, not with viruses) and the country of Papua New Guinea, which wholesale denied entry to all Asians although it had no case of the virus (the ban was lifted a day after it was mandated and now applies to people from Wuhan, which is under lockdown anyway). The incubation period for the virus is around 10 days, and that also appears to be the incubation period for sensationalist news.

The two adjectives used most often in connection with that virus have been “novel” and “deadly”. The novel coronavirus, the deadly coronavirus. In our times of worshipping anything new, it needs the outdated adjective “novel” to indicate something that is new, but not good.

Etymologically, “novel” comes from old Frech novel, a word meaning new, rare or strange. In the 8th to 14th centuries, the contemporary inflation of new did not exist. Life was a lot slower and mostly more predictable, hence anything new was unusual. This strangeness of the new is lost in the contemporary French nouvel, which – take “nouvelle cuisine” – has more of a fresh and interesting ring to it.

Novel also has a connection to Latin novus and to novella, meaning a short tale, a work of fiction. The novel coronavirus, then, is not just a virus. It became news, and by that process also became a work of fiction. Fiction needs to be engaging, and so, to add drama to something sounding as undramatic as “coronavirus”, it had to be deadly.

Lots of things are deadly. Life itself has a mortality rate of 100%, unlike the coronavirus, which, as it looks like now, causes the death of around 2% of patients. We don’t read “deadly burgers” on menus although fast food is associated with a 62% relatively increased mortality (Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality, 2019) or “the deadly Chrysler Sebring” although 126 drivers died in it (Chrysler Sebring 2001, data by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety). For most people outside of mainland China, the likelyhood to die of the Wuhan coronavirus is close to zero. The likelihood for anyone to die of the common flu is a lot higher. But this doesn’t make for good news.