Our minds are preoccupied with tiny risks, ignoring the real challenges
From Ebola and Sars to flying and nuclear power, emotional responses distract us from dealing with the larger threats that we face
As of today, about 1,500 people have died from Ebola disease. Many are in a quiet panic about the threat. Some airlines are stopping flights to Guinea, where the latest outbreak emerged at the end of last year, and to countries nearby.
But let's get some perspective here. In 2012, the latest year covered by World Health Organisation data, more than 800,000 people died worldwide of malaria. More than 2.4 million died from diarrhoea. Ebola is ugly, but in the bigger picture of wanting to stay alive, there are more important things to worry about.
I was reminded of the same thing a month ago when there was a global panic about flying - in particular, with Malaysia Airlines - following the MH17 tragedy over Ukraine.
In terms of "per kilometre travelled", you are 100,000 times more likely to die on a motorcycle than on a plane - and 2,000 times more likely to die in a car accident.
We are appalling at assessing risk. We obsess about tiny possibilities and casually neglect the things that can really harm us.
People smoke cigarettes, which contribute to more than a quarter of all the 56 million deaths in the world every year, but then spend large sums on sun screen and hide from the sun to avoid the risk of skin cancer (which causes 77,000 deaths a year worldwide, fewer than a quarter the number that die from drowning).
I recall the same phenomenon clearly from our awful experience in Hong Kong of Sars. When people died of Sars, their death was recorded as due to pneumonia. But the 2003 data shows no recognisable upsurge in deaths from pneumonia.
Worldwide, up to 5 million people every year fall victim to one severe flu or another, and up to 500,000 die. During the Sars outbreak in 2003, 8,000 people fell victim to the virus and 775 died - not in Hong Kong, but worldwide.
Often, the true pandemic is the panic created by gory news coverage of remote and exotic threats like Ebola.
During the Sars scare in Hong Kong, air passenger numbers dropped 15 per cent. Retail sales crashed, forcing many shops to slash prices by 50 to 60 per cent. Cinemas were empty.
The estimate was that US$40 billion was lost worldwide as flights were cancelled, schools were shut, people stayed home and panic gripped markets.
A report by Brookings Institution at the time said: "A mild pandemic scenario will cost the global economy US$360 billion." This was confirmed by the World Bank in 2008, with a study indicating that a mild pandemic would strip US$330 billion from the world economy.
Our inability to keep such exotic risks in proper perspective is apparent in many areas of relevance today.
In Hong Kong and worldwide, nuclear power has become a dirty word because of hyperemotional responses to tragedies like Three Mile Island in 1979 and Fukushima in 2011 - and the victim has been global energy security.
No nuclear plant has been built in the United States since Three Mile Island despite the reality that the worst radioactive exposure was less than that from an average dental X-ray.
People were worried about radioactive fallout from Fukushima without recognising that they were exposed to less radiation than from an average chest X-ray.
Yet we continue to build polluting coal-fired plants.
One also has to wonder why so many are in such a sweat about Occupy Central. Experience from the "Occupy" movements in London and New York suggests damage is negligible, life goes on and the protests dwindle quickly.
If our government were more systematic in measuring and prioritising the risks that surround us, Occupy Central would be down there with chest X-rays as a threat to life as we know it. Instead, it is consuming thousands of hours of officials' time, and of course the chatterers in the Legislative Council can think of nothing else.
Let's put Occupy Central in proper perspective and focus our attention where it can mitigate the most serious economic risks, like dealing with severe demographic changes and managing our integration with the Pearl River Delta. That is what a smart government would do.
David Dodwell is the executive director of the Hong Kong-Apec Trade Policy Group