- Coronavirus outbreak has spread outside China, causing a massive scare around the globe.
- Inside China situation is difficult due to Wuhan being a transportation hub and Lunar new year celebrations underway.
- Panic is fueled by infotainment news, misinformation and conspiracy theories, even though viruses and pandemics are a common occurrence (eg each year influenza kills up to 650.000 people).
- While spread is hard to prevent, Chinese authorities as well as the international community and WHO are putting safeguards in place to contain the outbreak – China put nearly 50 million people under quarantine, while most nations implemented screenings at airports and prepared medical facilities and procedures for dealing with patients.
As humans we expect to tackle challenges head on, but when the culprit is invisible to the naked eye, silent in it’s spread and potentially deadly, all sorts of flawed logic and panic reactions come to the forefront.
When it comes to microbial pathogens there is a historical legacy of unease as no one associates the plague (with its grim colloquial name of “Black Death”), Ebola, Polio, Black Pox, or Spanish flu with something positive, or do they? Coupled with infotainment news searching for sensational stories – and what’s more sensational than an invisible and potentially deadly threat to everyone? – a novel virus infection imminently becomes front page news. Lastly, what would be a public scare without misinformation and conspiracies spread over social media, resulting in cases of racism directed towards Chinese and Asians in general.
Most of us probably remember the SARS outbreak in 2003. How many have heard of MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) that started in 2012 in Saudi Arabia with sporadic clusters of infections being found up until 2018. We’ve all been blasted with images from Democratic Republic of Congo during its Ebola outbreak in 2017. Few know though, that there were two consecutive outbreaks, one still ongoing. Similarly, no news outlet is reporting daily on deaths due to common influenza, even though it infects multiple tens of millions, resulting in up to five million severe cases and 650.000 deaths annually. Lastly, there is an established consensus within the scientific community that given modern interconnectedness of the globe pandemics will happen and cannot be outright prevented. Consequently, panic helps no one, while making sure governments and communities are prepared is the only option left.
In the case of the Wuhan coronavirus, reports about it started surfacing in December and the Chinese Center for Disease Control and prevention immediately launched an investigation. By January 1st the presumed ground zero (a wet market in Wuhan) was closed, while health officials implemented early diagnosis and quarantine measures as well as conducting epidemiological investigations, mainly following close contacts of the people who were infected. On January 9th Chinese scientists sequenced the virus and developed a test for identification, as well as sharing details with WHO and foreign experts. As the infection began to spread, China quarantined Wuhan on January 23rd, followed by multiple other cities in the days after. Even before the quarantine itself, there have been multiple steps taken to stem the spread, including door-to-door surveys, checks on public transports, banning of long distance transportation and the recall of medical staff from holidays. They also build two new “hospitals”, or more aptly called mass triage centers, within a couple of days.
Overall, a big scare was a repeat of the muddled handling of the SARS epidemic, when the Chinese government initially tried to conceal the severity of the SARS epidemic, but its cover-up was exposed by a high-ranking physician. There were some deficiencies inside China’s local administrations as the Wuhan authorities played down early warning signs, which might pose a threat to the credibility of local governments across the PRC. Consequently, the central committee stepped in and took over the overall disease control efforts, while Xi Jinping himself warned that the coronavirus needs to be taken seriously. Furthermore, implementing extensive measures never before seen during epidemics, with up to 15 cities and roughly 50 million people being under quarantine. It does not help that Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, is at the center of the Chinese industrial heartland, making it a major transit hub between Beijing/Tianjin, Chengdu/Chongqing, Macau/Hong Kong, and Shanghai. On top of it all, Chinese Lunar New Year travel season kicked into high gear, which means millions of people are traveling all around China. Preventing the spread is thus nearly impossible, yet the Chinese government is taking unprecedented steps to limit it, by cancelling crowded events and imposing mass screenings of travelers as well as extending the holiday season.
An immediate response can be observed from the international community and WHO as well. The later declared a global health emergency while foreign governments ramped up screenings at airports and started evacuating their citizens from Hubei province, as it’s safer to collect them in China and immediately screen/quarantine them at entry home. But as can be seen from the news, the virus has spread to all continents and multiple countries. For some critics, the Chinese government is again to blame for not acting fast enough. That attitude completely misses the science behind microbiological pathogens. A new virus doesn’t arrive with a brochure explaining it’s entrails – identifying and researching is a procedure that takes time and has to be thorough, especially if it is the basis for a quarantine of 50 million people and shifting holiday plans for a billion, which might or might not have a massive impact on the Chinese and global economy. Then there are some pundits, not really unexpected in light of rampant sino-phobia being peddled as analysis these days, that “connected” the spread with the Chinese Belt and Road initiative, as if no other nation is building more infrastructure and China is somehow responsible for the globalized and interconnected world that enables a novel pathogen to spread with ease.
Instead of panicking, it’s paramount to understand how a particular country is governed and how it deals with problems that can spillover beyond its borders. It’s wise to be realistic about the situation – the virus is coming – it’s not a matter of if, but when and how to be prepared for it. Furthermore, while the Chinese economy was already experiencing a slowdown, it must now fight an epidemic that will consume a lot of resources and potentially, depending how long the epidemic lasts, hurt growth even more. The slowdown of the second largest economy in the world will not leave anyone untouched and even if the coronavirus is successfully contained around the world, the economic impacts will still reverberate throughout the global economy.