(Image: AAP/Yonhap News)

At least 300 people have been infected by the new coronavirus in China, sparking panic as millions travel to celebrate the Lunar New Year. 

From swine flu to Y2K, the world loves to stress about prophecies and plagues. Crikey takes a look at other notable outbreaks, and how we dealt with them. 

Swine flu

Swine flu panic spread across the world faster than the virus itself. Compared with the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, the H1N1 influenza virus was predicted to infect up to 2 billion people, with one report estimating 10,000 Australians would die in New South Wales alone.

A vaccine was quickly developed and the Australian government panicked, dropping more than $100 million on vaccines (though it only distributed around half of them). 

In reality, the disease was much less severe. WHO was criticised for prematurely declaring a pandemic, though swine flu is estimated to have claimed the lives of between 105,000 and 395,000 people across the globe, and between 191 and 1600 in Australia. Awful, but not much worse than a bad flu season.


We can laugh about it now but, at the time, people were seriously panicked about the “Millennium Bug”. Computer programs only had a two-digit code for the year, leading the public to panic that when we ticked over into the new millennia, there would be a major glitch. 

Y2K prophets saw planes falling out of the sky, global blackouts, world economic recessions as banks calculated interests rates minus 100 years, and nuclear explosions as incorrect calculations changed water pressure and radiation levels. 

Instead, we entered the century feeling pretty silly about ourselves.


Now eradicated, smallpox was once one of the world’s deadliest diseases. In 1789, the disease decimated Australia’s Aboriginal population, killing thousands. The colonists were unaffected, thought to have built up an immunity. It’s possible this was an act of biological warfare


In 2016, our screens were flooded with heartbreaking photos of crying babies with tiny heads as an outbreak of the Zika virus spread across the Americas. The world reacted: there were calls to cancel the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, postpone planned pregnancies, and for tourists to stay away from affected areas. 

Zika fell away from national headlines; because the mosquitoes that carry the disease can only survive in far-north Queensland, the panic was easily mitigated in Australia. 

While the outbreak officially ended in November 2016, there is no vaccine, placing millions still at risk. 


Rare but severe, the Ebola virus disease hit headlines in 2014-16 and again in 2018 when the largest outbreak since its discovery spread across west Africa. Transmitted through broken skin and body fluids, the disease doesn’t die when its host does. It kills about half of all those infected. 

While images of workers dressed in radioactive yellow dominated our airwaves for a few days, Australia quickly developed empathy fatigue for the illness; the risk is low for us. A trial vaccine is being developed, and the disease has been largely contained.

Mayan 2012

The end of the world was supposed to happen eight years ago. An ancient Mayan calendar system only cycled up to 2012 (a mere 200,000 years into the future). It was predicted the solar system would be sucked into a black hole, collide with another planet and destroy us all. 

Cosmic imagery but, obviously, we’re all fine. 


Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) appeared in China in 2002, prompting Australia to implement tough border control and new laws to isolate infected people against their will. 

In the end, the virus didn’t land on our shores — but not before the outbreak killed 800 people across Asia. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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