Imagine for a moment that we turn all our attention to COMMON flu (yes, our old well known friend): News outlets begin counting all infected, one by one, and all dead, and keep track on front pages. Social media amplifies and exaggerates the news. Citizens get worried. Governments react and cancel trade shows, football games, shut down entire regions….
I am no doctor, but it seems to me that the situation would not be very different from the current situation with the Covid-19 coronavirus. When you look at raw numbers, it does not look like the world is going to end (good article here), especially if we consider that many people that has mild symptoms do not appear on the statistics.
Up to now, we have around 100,000 infected and 3,400 deaths, worldwide. Considering that our old friend common flu infects 20 to 30 million people and causes 30000 to 50000 deaths per year (in the US alone!!!), these do not seem numbers that warrant cancelling trade shows, football games, school classes, quarantining 1 billion people, shutting down a country for several weeks and causing widespread coronahysteria.
So, what is happening?
From my (very personal) point of view, until they have reliable information, world governments are reacting to the reactions of the Chinese government. There is an illness, you don’t have much information but you see that China puts 1000 million people on quarantine, stops the country, builds huge tent hospitals in 10 days… Well, based on the information that I have, if I was a government, I would take drastic action too.
And my opinion is that China has overreacted. To analyze China’s response, we need to understand the medical situation, and the current political situation.
First, medical. Its response to Covid-19 has been heavily influenced by the SARS crisis in 2003 (SARS had an estimated mortality rate of 10%). Back then, China lost a lot of face: they went from outright denial to asking for international help, showing the world that they needed help to handle the situation. After SARS they put in place a series of protocols to prevent the same from happening again, and they are well prepared for another SARS. The government has stressed a lot the fact that they are ready, China will beat the virus, etc. And now a new virus appears, from one of the same markets again. At the beginning the government does not know much about it, so they activate the protocols that they put in place after SARS. It’s a logical step, since they still don’t know how the virus spreads, mortality rate etc.
We also need to look at the political situation because in China, probably more than on any other country on earth, any decision is made from within a political framework, because the Party controls everything, and is very effective at doing so. And when you talk politics, nowadays, you talk about Xi Jinping. Mr Xi is a super politician. He has managed to accumulate all the power in his hands, for good and for bad. And he has changed the constitution to keep this power, basically, forever. In any country, in any political system, you don’t manage this without creating a lot of enemies along the way. Mr Xi has designed a set of policies with the aim of basically Make China Great Again, which from my humble point of view are very good (from a Chinese point of view). But what works in China does not work in the rest of the world, and the heavy handed approach he is taking has caused him some problems: the trade war (Trump was nothing like he expected), Hong Kong (situation has gotten out of hand) and Xinjiang (around the world, internment camps are getting some nasty comparisons). So the pressure is mounting, and he really can not afford to let this new situation to get out of hand.
So, China shuts down the country, closes factories and cities and puts 1 billion people in quarantine.
So, with the information that they have, some western countries begin overreacting, following China.
Part of the problem is that we WANT our governments to overreact. Because the way that information reaches us has changed a lot since 2003, today we get information on steroids. Back in 2003, newspapers business model was sales and advertising, and social media was in its infancy. Now, pay-per-click pays a big part, so many newspapers tend to write more dramatic headlines, so you click and open another page with more advertising. Many people get their information from Youtube, with its algorithms programmed specifically to keep you hooked (you begin watching kittens and, if you follow the recommendations, in 5 minutes you are watching a video of a tiger eating some guy…). Facebook, which despite all that has happened is still the primary news source for an amazing 52% of Americans (according to Forbes). Fake news and bots are rampant on all these platforms. And we are part of the problem, amplifying any small bit of news through retweets or sharing with our friends on Whatsapp (the faker places a small bomb, and we are a small part of a huge blast wave)
Maybe I am wrong and in a few weeks we will all be dead. But if you try to keep a cool head and stick to the numbers, it does not look that way. I will keep washing my hands, let the doctors do their work and keep working, there is (maybe) nothing to see here.