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The political responsibility of Beijing in the spread of the coronavirus

Thursday, January 30th 2020 - 08:09 UTC
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Health authorities in Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the virus first appeared, spotted it Dec. 31, when only a few dozen cases had come to their attention Health authorities in Wuhan, the city of 11 million where the virus first appeared, spotted it Dec. 31, when only a few dozen cases had come to their attention

By Gwynne Dyer – In an emergency, the good thing about a dictatorship is it can respond very fast. The bad thing is it won’t respond at all until the dictator-in-chief says 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 evens or worse.

Local health authorities in Wuhan, the central Chinese city of 11 million where the virus first appeared, spotted it Dec. 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 Jan. 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 virus’s spread. But nobody dared to rock the boat; nothing was done.

A pause here to recall how you control spread of a new infectious disease for which there is neither a vaccine nor an effective cure. You isolate victims as soon as they are identified and give them what medical support you can: some will die, but most 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 person to person in the air. It will be much harder to isolate virus carriers if they become infectious before they develop visible symptoms. But the methods available to slow or stop the spread are still the same: identify carriers and isolate them.

Now, back to 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.

We now have two pieces of bad news that would have made it even more urgent to seal Wuhan off if they had been known at the time. The new virus does propagate through the air, and people carrying it do become infectious before they experience symptoms.

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 Saturday (Jan. 25), saying China faces a “grave situation”, and now the system is racing to do what it should have done two weeks ago.

Too bad, but this pandemic (if that is what it becomes) probably will 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 flu outbreak 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, Beijing has a particular responsibility to contain them early. 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.

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