4.5 C
Elmira
Saturday, April 4, 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.

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

Already on the brink, Canadians will teeter in pandemic crisis

Bill payments such as rent becoming top of mind at the top of a new month, economic issues are gaining more traction...

Coronavirus a reminder that we can’t return to business as usual

Even in the midst of a crisis that has yet to reach its peak, there are questions about what comes next.

Saving the old over the economy

The basic choice all along with COVID-19 has been: do we let the old die, or do we take a big hit...

Current plague will bring some changes

They teach you in journalism school never to use the phrase “...X has changed the world forever.” Or at least they should. Covid-19...

Pent-up demand for post-COVID-19 travel will be huge

Right now, the responsible and necessary thing to do is to stay isolated and try to slow the spread of the COVID-19...

Isolation brings even more challenges this planting season

This week, many of us are struggling  with coronavirus-driven isolation. But for most farmers, isolation is part the job.

There’s plenty of fodder for a conspiracy theory

With all the disruption and uncertainty in the world right now, it’s easy to forget that good times lie ahead of us....

The ups and downs of self-isolation and the angler

As I write this I am, like most of you, unsure as to how long we will be asked to self-isolate for the...

Technology returns actors to the screen

Q.  Audrey Hepburn was digitally recreated for a chocolate commercial in 2013, as was Bruce Lee in a Chinese-language ad for a...

There’s a run on it now, and toilet paper has a long history

Q.  Toilet paper dates back to medieval China but all sorts of things have been used as “bum fodder,” really, whatever was handy.  Can...
- Advertisement -