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Culture Beat / January 29, 2020

China vs. the Rapidly Spreading Coronavirus

With 132 deaths and more than 6,000 people infected, Beijing quarantines 50 million people.

With reports of more than 6,000 people infected, 132 deaths, and 50 million people now quarantined in China, fears of the new coronavirus may be spreading faster than the contagion itself. Those fears may not be entirely unfounded, as indicated by China’s sudden and massive reaction — or at least the appearance of a reaction. But there is also a sense that the fear is overblown. For perspective, China is home to 1.4 billion people. And for comparison, there have been 8,200 deaths from the flu here in the United States this season alone.

The coronavirus is believed to have originated from a seafood market in Wuhan known for selling wild-animal meat. Symptomatically, infected individuals suffer symptoms similar to that of influenza, though what has public-health experts worried is the apparent higher mortality rate than the flu and the unusually virulent nature of this virus. Evidently, unlike the flu, an infected individual is contagious prior to showing any symptoms of being sick. Therefore, someone can be contagious and spreading the virus before they even know they’re infected.

Are the ChiComs in a position to handle this health crisis? Well, as The Wall Street Journal reports, “[China] has about 20% fewer physicians per capita than Mexico and 70% fewer general practitioners than World Health Organization standards. About 96% of its doctors are specialists because general practitioners are poorly paid. Hospitals are overcrowded, and people in rural areas rely on medieval village clinics. Doctors at a small city near Wuhan are wearing ponchos because they lack hazmat suits. Hubei province needs 100,000 suits each day, but Chinese manufacture can produce only 30,000. Village clinics are rationing face masks.”

Meanwhile, Beijing has repeatedly rebuffed U.S. offers to send Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials to help, but U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar did observe that China’s response has been significantly better than its response to the 2002-2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak.

Thus far five out of more than a hundred people who traveled from Wuhan to the U.S. have tested positive for the virus, but CDC officials say that the current health threat to Americans remains low. In fact, the bigger impact of coronavirus to the U.S. may be to the economy, as China has stopped work for more than 50 million Chinese until mid February. Arguably the biggest problem with the story, however, is that no one can trust the information coming out of China.

(See Mark Alexander’s analysis COVID-19 Perspective and Preparedness.)

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