22 January 2020   Leave a comment

There are reports that the number of people infected by the new coronavirus in China is spreading and that human-to-human transmission appears possible. This event is one about which I am totally unqualified to understand fully. I do not know the dynamics of such a disease nor does it appear as if even the experts can yet do an accurate threat assessment. But we have had experience with the spread of disease in the past: the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic; the bubonic plague in the 14th century; the HIV epidemic beginning in the 1980s; the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014-16; and the SARS outbreak in China in 2003. Those outbreaks were devastating and costly to contain.

The world has taken some steps to address the problem of infectious diseases in a world in which people move around at astonishing speed. Global leaders established the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPMB) in conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Bank. The creation of the GPMB was necessary because of the very high costs of containing a pandemic after it had already taken hold. Laurie Garrett writes:

“An enormous number of previously unknown viruses, such as the one that caused the 2003 epidemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), have claimed the lives of people and animals around the world. In just seven years (from 2011 to 2018), for example, the WHO did battle with 1,483 epidemics.

“And the costs of containment, coupled with the disruptions’ general economic impact, have worsened, according to a GPMB study commissioned by the World Bank. The 2003 SARS epidemic exacted a toll of about $40 billion on the global economy, the 2009 swine flu epidemic reached about $50 billion, and the 2014-16 West African Ebola epidemic cost nearly $53 billion. An influenza pandemic akin to the 1918 flu would today cost the world economy $3 trillion, or up to 4.8 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).

“Economically, wealthy nations have proven the most resilient in recent outbreaks, and the GPMB predicts that countries such as the United States and Germany could get through a devastating epidemic with less than 0.5 percent loss of GDP. But poorer nations—from India and Russia down to the countries of Central Africa—could lose up to 2 percent of their GDPs from the same hypothetical pandemic. The West African Ebola epidemic directly cost the hardest-hit countries—Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea—$2.8 billion, knocking Sierra Leone’s GDP down a whopping 20 percent in 2015.”

The spread of the Wuhan coronavirus seems to be accelerating. According to LiveScience: “There are now 440 confirmed cases and 17 deaths linked to the virus in China, according to the BBC. That’s up from around 300 cases and six deaths reported just yesterday (Jan. 21).” The virus has also been detected in a number of countries: Thailand, Japan, South Korea, the US, and Taiwan. The world’s financial markets have been rattled by the spread of the virus and its potential for economic damage because of the necessary containment measures. There are legitimate fears of the spread of the virus because the outbreak coincides with the celebrations for the Chinese New Year which is the largest voluntary migration in the world every year: “Chinese New Year is a holiday that inspires humankind’s largest annual migration. Hundreds of millions of travelers jammed into very proximity — planes, trains, automobiles, ships — provide an ideal breeding ground for hostile pathogens….The weeklong holiday is a pivotal period for traveling, shopping and banquet-style feasts that generate growth around the nation. If tens of millions of mainlanders stayed home over the next 10 days, first-quarter GDP might suffer markedly.”

In such circumstances, it is difficult to assess the threat posed by the coronavirus. There are some reports that the incubation period may be as long as several days which makes containment very difficult–someone can travel without any symptoms and get through the containment measures. But as it unfolds, we will get a better idea of serious it actually is. The important thing is to not panic, but to follow the news seriously. Globalization has always been behind the spread of pandemics. The spread was slow during the Black Death of the 14th century. Spanish flu spread rapidly because of the movements of people associated with World War I. Today, diseases spread in a matter of days making containment very difficult.

Posted January 22, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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