-2.7 C
Elmira
Saturday, February 22, 2020
Their View / Opinion

A failing grade for coronavirus

In an emergency, the good thing about a dictatorship is that it can respond very fast. The bad thing is that it won’t respond at all until the dictator-in-chief says that it should. All the little dictators who flourish in this sort of system won’t risk their positions by passing bad news up the line until the risk of being blamed for delay outweighs the risk of being blamed for the emergency in the first place.

You can see how this works if you consider China’s response to the emergence of nCov-2019 (novel coronavirus 2019), a new viral threat potentially as serious as the SARS virus of 2003. Some things it has done well, but others it did very badly, and the odds that the virus will spread globally are now probably even or worse.

The local health authorities in Wuhan, the 11-million-strong city in central China where the virus first appeared, spotted it on December 31, when only a few dozen cases had come to their attention. That’s as fast as you could ask, and they promptly shut down the seafood and wild game market where the victims caught the disease. Score: 9 out of 10.

China’s national health authorities also acted fast. On January 9 they announced that they had a brand new coronavirus on their hands, and just one day later they released its full genetic sequence online so medical researchers worldwide could start working on it.  Elapsed time: 11 days. Known deaths at that point: one. Score: 10 out of 10.

But these are medical professionals, doing their duty according to internationally agreed protocols. We don’t know what they recommended to China’s political authorities at that point, but they must have called for widespread testing, and probably also for travel restrictions to control the spread of the virus. But nobody dared to rock the boat: nothing was done.

A pause here to recall how you control the spread of a new infectious disease for which there is no vaccine, nor any effective cure. You isolate the victims as soon as they are identified, and give them what medical support you can: some will die, but most will usually survive. And if you do that soon enough and thoroughly enough, the global pandemic never gets going.

There are often complicating factors. The spread will be far faster if the virus can pass from one person to another in the air. It will be much harder to isolate the people carrying the virus if they become infectious before they develop visible symptoms. But the methods available to slow or stop the spread are still the same: identify the carriers and isolate them.

Now, back to what happened in China. The medical people did their job; the political people did not. It was two more weeks before the city of Wuhan was cut off from the rest of the country and the world. Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday in China’s calendar, was coming up fast, but nothing was done although half the population goes home for a visit at this time every year.

Now Wuhan is in lockdown, and the regime has even extended the New Year holiday by three days to keep people where they are a little longer. That doesn’t really help – people still have to go home eventually, and Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, admits that five million people left the city for the New Year celebrations. But it looks decisive. Score: 2 out of 10.

Zhou didn’t dare advocate isolating the city, and neither did anybody else, until the Great Panjandrum Himself had spoken. President Xi Jinping finally spoke January 25, saying that China faces a “grave situation,” and now the system is racing to do what it should have been done two weeks ago.

Too bad, but this pandemic (if that is what it becomes) will probably be on the same scale as the SARS virus, and that is not really horrific: deaths in the high hundreds or a few thousands worldwide. The mortality rate among those who catch it appears to be about two per cent, compared to one per cent for ordinary seasonal influenza. And ordinary flu kills about 400,000 (mostly elderly) people every year.

But one of these days something like the 1918 virus that caused the ‘Spanish’ influenza will emerge again. That killed around 50 million people worldwide, out of a global population only a quarter of what it is now.

Since Chinese food markets now seem to be a prime source of dangerous new ‘flu-related viruses, the Chinese government has a particular responsibility to contain them early. The Chinese doctors will do their duty, as always, but it would be nice if China had its political act a bit more together before then.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to The Observer's online community. Pseudonyms are not permitted. By submitting a comment, you accept that The Observer has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner The Observer chooses. Please note that The Observer does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our submission guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

We're looking for opinions that count.

Yours. Join in the conversation, provide another viewpoint, change minds with your perspective.

OUR COLUMNISTS

The finance industry always extracts its ounce of flesh

More than half of Canadians won’t be contributing to an RRSP this year, apparently immune to the exhortations of the financial services industry that...

Efforts for economic development misguided, with growth misplaced and counterproductive

For the 10 years between 2008 and 2018, 91 per cent of the job creation in Ontario occurred in the GTA (including the Oshawa...

On a path to a new Ireland?

Bertie Ahern, who was the taoiseach (prime minister) of the Irish Republic from 1997 to 2008, was a brilliant machine politician, not a nationalist...

Is the ‘devil virus’ a ‘black swan’?

China officially went back to work on Monday, after an extended two-week Lunar New Year holiday, while the authorities struggled to get the spread...

Farmers deserve a break for problems beyond their control

We all have to be responsible for our actions … but what about actions caused by others? Or by nature? That’s a question...

New opportunities emerge to connect consumers and farmers

On Tuesday, the agriculture sector put a lot of effort into pumping up Canada’s Ag Day, an initiative designed to raise the profile...

Dealing with the big perch conundrum

On Sunday, I was ice fishing when a near disaster occurred – my first fish was a nice, plump 11-inch perch, the biggest...

A few techniques that auger well

I’ve got to admit that, when my friend told me he was going to spin class to get into better shape, I thought...

It may not snow, but it could end up raining iguanas in the cold

Q.  They are the most abundant organisms on Earth, by one estimate over a million times more than the stars in the universe, says...

Technology means space may be the next locale for outsourcing

Q.  “Space is open for business,” and some companies are planning to use the International Space Station (ISS) as a manufacturing hub.  What technologies might...
- Advertisement -