(Image: Imperial War Museum)

Browsing through the cesspools of Twitter and newspaper comment sections allows an unvarnished view of human emotion. And it remains clear that for many Australians, COVID-19 is a modern-day black plague that randomly slays millions of healthy people — without interventions like lockdowns and border closures, that is.

Rationally speaking, this view makes little sense, given we now have 18 months of very clear fatality data.

While COVID (in an unvaccinated population) is clearly more lethal than influenza, it is about 1/100th as damaging as the 1918 Spanish Flu. Across the world, 99.96% of people have not died from COVID, and for those who have fallen victim, 89% had a pre-existing condition, while the median age of death from COVID is, in almost all countries, above that nation’s life expectancy.

The CDC reported that on average COVID victims had four comorbidities. Even before vaccinations, COVID actually killed a relatively small number of people on a global scale, and those who tragically died were almost all already sick or very old. That said, because there are almost 8 billion people on Earth (which is a lot), 4.1 million deaths seems like a huge number (when not compared to the 8 billion).  

But whether or not the fear of COVID that millions of Australians hold is rational — and whether it was encouraged by desperate media or self-serving politicians — isn’t the point. What is more curious is why Australians seem to have a very different view about COVID from Europe and the US, who have largely decided to treat COVID as endemic and largely live relatively normal lives, despite having very high infection levels relative to Australian standards.

One explanation for this is the “Remote Miss” theory, which was devised by Canadian psychiatrist JT MacCurdy and beautifully explained by Malcolm Gladwell in his book David and Goliath. Gladwell was trying to understand why so many Londoners were relatively unfazed by the constant German blitz of London between September 1940 and May 1941. Gladwell marvelled that within hours of massive bomb attacks, kids would be playing in the street and people shopping, as if nothing had ever happened. 

He explained: “…the remote misses. These are the people who listen to the sirens, watch the enemy bombers overhead, and hear the thunder of the exploding bombs. But the bomb hits down the street or the next block over. And for them, the consequences of a bombing attack are exactly the opposite of the near-miss group. They survived, and the second or third time that happens, the emotion associated with the attack, MacCurdy wrote, ‘is a feeling of excitement with a flavour of invulnerability.’ A near miss leaves you traumatized. A remote miss makes you think you are invincible.

“‘We are all of us not merely liable to fear,’ MacCurdy went on. ‘We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration. When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and, when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage.'”

The US has reported 34 million COVID cases (and the real number is probably closer to 100 million), the UK more than 5 million. Italy, Spain and Germany, all around 4 million. The citizens of these countries have lived through COVID and seen first-hand that while the virus can be a killer it didn’t kill them. They had a remote miss. The UK is now recording more than 50,000 daily infections and today is largely returning to pre-COVID life. 

Other than Melbourne’s second wave, which killed 800 people (82% in private nursing homes), very few Australians experienced a COVID remote miss. We haven’t seen the bomb craters and continued playing in the streets. Many Australians still fear a Northern Italy or India style wave of death, because they genuinely think it will happen without seemingly unending lockdowns.

The reality is Italy in March 2020 and India for a brief period this year were the outliers. The worst-hit countries have recorded fatality rates of 2000 per million over 18 months (or one death for every 500 people). But our current level of vaccinations mean that we’d see a fraction of those deaths (more than 70% of over-70s in Australia have had at least one dose).

But perhaps because we never really experienced it, Australians tend to not have especially rational views when it comes to COVID.

Adam Schwab is a Crikey and SmartCompany columnist, author of Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed, and the founder of LuxuryEscapes.com. He is a director of Private Media, the publisher of Crikey.