In the early days of the coronavirus, during the Lunar New Year Celebration, I asked my cousin who had worked in Asia years ago if Americans would pay attention to what was happening. The coronavirus family include the common cold, but this virus had never been seen before. Despite reports that 41 people died and 1,400 were infected, my cousin was not optimistic that Americans were paying attention, at least not yet. Early information reported that only a quarter of cases were severe and the dead were mostly elderly people with pre-existing conditions. The virus supposedly began in animals and spread to humans, but it was questionable whether it could spread from human to human.
Despite the downplay of the severity, pharmacies in Wuhan began to run out of supplies and officials urged people to avoid crowds. Soon the city was on lockdown with no public transportation in or out of the city. McDonald’s and Starbucks closed and the US, France and Russia tried to evacuate their nationals. Disney closed its resort in Shanghai and tourism began to shut down. A friend reported that all of her consulting work in China had been cancelled through May.
China’s leaders called this a “grave situation” and even at this early stage, travel restrictions were imposed on Wuhan, the original source of the virus and there was announcement that private vehicles would be banned from Wuhan’s central districts. Lines started to form at hospitals and pharmacies were running out of supplies. There were now plans to build a second emergency hospital to be finished in half a month.
China began suspending all foreign trips by Chinese holiday tour groups, as the number of cases rose and a few cases appeared in Australia, France, and the US involving people who had recently travelled from the affected region in China. China’s neighbors were high alert, however, with cases reported in Thailand, Singapore, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, South Korea and Nepal. They were treated in isolation, but the numbers weren’t enough yet for the World Health Organization to classify the virus as an “international emergency”,
The nightly news was still muted even as the situation worsened, the hospitals were flooded and one exhausted 51-year-old doctor, Jiang Jijun, died of a heart attack while treating patients. The Chinese government sent 1,200 more medical professionals to Wuhan as the quarantine of 35 million people across 12 cities took hold. Wuhan’s mayor admitted that initial earnings were not sufficient. The early phase of the outbreak had been botched with the falsehood that the virus could not be spread from human to human.
Few people heard about scientists creating simulations at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in partnership with the World Economic Forum and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, showed that such a disease might kill 65 million people over 18 months. I would have started to really worry but the SARS outbreak about 17 years ago that infected more than 8,000 people, killed a tiny fraction of that number.
But the simulation wasn’t focused on the deaths. The intent was to highlight the potential loss globally of $750 billion dollars and the societal and economic consequences. Maybe that’s why WHO originally congratulated China for taking the appropriate measures to contain the spread of coronavirus.
As the numbers grew, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus an emergency in China, but not an international emergency. Yet, it is developing a global strategic preparedness and response plan. How can it not? As of Feb. 7, 2020 there were 24,554 confirmed cases globally and 491 deaths, an increase of 6,600 cases and 145 deaths in just two days.
Accused of not reporting all cases and downplaying the seriousness of the situation led to a recalibration of diagnosis strategies. But this comes long after the Chinese whistleblower doctor was censored by police, contracted the virus and died. Reports of his death were replaced with reports of being treated for the disease, which many have interpreted as a convenient way to say that while everything was done to save him, he finally succumbed.
Why would such a declaration be helpful? The outrage in China is spreading and the death of this doctor has magnified the unrest. The societal and economic consequences of major upheaval are immense. For example, protests against the Chinese who might enter with the virus are being folded into general protests against the Chinese governments’s role In Hong Kong.
Sports events are being curtailed or postponed. The International Exhibition of Inventions held annually in the Swiss city of Geneva is postponed for six months. In a poll of US companies in China by Shanghai’s American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham), 78 percent of the respondents said they did not have sufficient staff at their Chinese plants to resume full production and 48 percent said plant shutdowns had already impacted their global supply chains.
Technology is giving the coronavirus a global reach beyond any infection. A conspiracy theory about the coronavirus was shared 9,000 times before Twitter removed it. The theory being spread combines unscrupulous scientists, greedy pharmaceutical companies, and an authoritarian government bent on world domination. Facts can be flexible as young people turn to a video gamer information on how diseases spread, even as its creators try to direct gamers to more reliable sources.
U.S. health officials have rebuked China and vice versa over the information shared. Yet, they point out that far more American die of the flu than are likely to die of the coronavirus. In a bad year, the flu kills up to 61,000 Americans. Yet there is something about a potential pandemic that demands attention. The social and economic consequences in a global economy are taking precedence over the rate of infection.
Maybe we should take advantage of this being World Interfaith Harmony Month and ask all people of good faith everywhere on the globe to work together for the good of their communities, both economically and socially. How better to counteract the affects of this coronavirus season.