IT has become uncomfortably obvious that it’s only a matter of time before a case of coronavirus is diagnosed north of the border. In fact, our Chief Medical Officer predicted as much at the end of last month. York saw the first British cases, and shortly thereafter, across the UK, some people started wearing masks. Recent reports of two Brighton GPs infected with the disease triggered a mass buying of antiseptic hand gels and face masks in the area. As of now, the map of where the Chinese malady has struck will slowly expand, reaching throughout the British Isles and into Scotland like ink spreading in water.

With parts of China in lockdown, creating scenarios reminiscent of a disaster movie, most of us are uneasily watching the lurgy’s progress, wondering what will happen next. When stories of any new and incurable condition hit the headlines there is always a sinking feeling. Simply knowing that a potentially deadly and easily transmittable ailment is on the loose makes everyone nervous. This is especially true these days when, thanks to air travel, the world has shrunk from an atlas of vast, unimaginably distant continents, to – in epidemiological terms – a perilously small country.

As the death rate inexorably rises, thoughts turn to friends or relatives who are not in the most robust health, for whom it could spell trouble. And, of course, you think of yourself. If, like me, a common cold fills you with self-pity, and also with surprise that something so ordinary can be this unpleasant, you are probably mentally scaling up that sensation, trying to guess what catching this pestilential virus might feel like. Those who have had pneumonia and would rather not go through that again, will be praying it passes them by.

Horror at the approach of a fast-moving sickness is one of the few experiences that hasn’t changed in the past millennium. I was once shown around the archive of medieval books at the University of St Andrews, some of them remarkably rare and beautiful. Yet what stayed with me is one rather dull tome, from the 1500s. The archivist picked it off the shelf and, skipping the contents, turned to the end pages. There, in neat sepia handwriting, its owner had inscribed a long recipe designed to ward off the plague, which was then filling the churchyards.

Today the mixture looks pitifully inadequate, a concoction of herbs and expensive spices which, though they might have covered up the stench of unwashed people and streets, was the medical equivalent of a chocolate fireguard. Sadly, there is no knowing if the recipe writer survived. Equally useless were the beaked masks worn by healers and quacks in the middle ages which, when stuffed with pot pourri, was thought to protect them. Face masks donned by the fearful today provide almost as little protection against viral agents.

From the Black Death’s heyday in the 1300s to the Spanish flu of 1918; from the scourge of polio in the first half of last century, to Sars and Ebola in our own times, fatal infections have struck dread into communities since records began. Most generations, it seems, have to endure a couple of pandemics, probably more. And while nobody likes to spread alarm, we are hard-wired to be nervous, to keep a distance from those with a cough or to scowl at anti-social sneezers who spray everyone in the vicinity. The problem with coronavirus, as with all its predecessors, is that, initially at least, we never know just how frightened we should be.

In China, where most of the deaths have so far occurred, undoubtedly there will be panic. Here, thankfully, that is not necessary. For a start, the vast majority of those infected suffer mild symptoms or, while having a nasty dose, do recover. At the moment estimates of the mortality rate vary between 1 and 18 per cent, with 2 per cent the favoured figure. Since quite a few of those infected barely notice they are ill, their cases are not recorded, meaning that lower estimates are more probable than high.

That’ll be small comfort to any who have lost loved ones, or are awaiting the all-clear while they are anxiously confined to quarantine. But for those of us fortunate enough to be living in a highly regulated, well-prepared country with a remarkable national health service, there is some reassurance, at least, in knowing the odds are stacked in patients’ favour.

Compared with earlier centuries, we have the benefit of being kept up to date almost hourly. But to some extent this is also a curse, since all we can do as ordinary punters is watch, wait, and try not to worry. Meanwhile, other serious threats go almost unnoticed. Indeed, if we were fed a daily head count of the number perishing from influenza every winter, we would be queuing round the block for the flu jab. Each year in Britain between 600 and 1000 die of flu and its complications. Yet although in some years it is considerably higher (one study following swine flu in 2008-2009 estimated 13,000 died), we are so used to its annual reappearance, we barely give it a thought.

If nothing else, perhaps the coronavirus outbreak will make us reassess how we respond to existing health risks. Maybe those who heroically struggle off a busy bus and into work while suffering from the “flu” will have a rethink: either they just have a rotten cold or, in the interests of public health, they should stay at home until they pose no risk of contagion.

Health authorities need to tread a fine line between raising awareness and triggering terror. If a weekly record was broadcast of deaths from cancer, say, or diabetes, or road accidents, we would probably live in mortal fear every day of our lives. The emergence of coronavirus is deeply worrying, and for some it has been, or will yet prove calamitous. Yet for those of us not personally affected so far, it acts as a sobering reminder. There are some things we can control, and there others where all we can do is follow advice on the best possible precautions. That done, what on earth would panicking achieve? Nothing good in this world, and who knows what in the next.