Coronavirus: Catastrophe or hyperbole?

Thirty-five million infections.  Thirty-four thousand deaths.

No, this isn't a worst-case scenario for the coronavirus.  It's a summary of our own seasonal flu last winter (2018–2019), the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has complete numbers.

And those numbers weren't even record-breaking.  The year before was much worse.  The CDC anticipates that this year's flu season will prove milder — from twelve to thirty thousand deaths.  Common Type A (H1N1) and Type B (H3N2) influenzas are the real killers.

Yet all we're hearing about is the dreaded Chinese coronavirus.  The head of the World Health Organization calls it "the worst enemy you can imagine."  The chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University fears a possible infection rate of 60–80% of the world's population.

Why all the panic?  The coronavirus has caused about 70,000 infections and 1,700 deaths as of this writing, numbers that are scarcely a rounding error for a typical flu season in the U.S.

Part of the concern is because the coronavirus is new and largely unknown.  We don't know where it originated (in bats, snakes, pangolins, in Wuhan's bio-safety level 4 super-lab?), or how easily it can be transmitted between humans, or its deadliness.  (Current figures indicate a fatality rate over two percent, about double that of our influenzas.  This might be explained by conditions in China — the access to medical care and the quality of that care.)

Of greater concern is our lack of trust in China's numbers.  We assume that the Chinese are underreporting their cases of coronavirus.  The only question is, by how much?

If we suppose that coronavirus infections are many times what China is reporting, that would be a serious problem, indeed.  Eventually, the lies would come to light, and the Chinese authorities would be seen as more untrustworthy than they already are.

But even if the number of actual cases were many hundreds of times what China is reporting, they would only approach the number of seasonal flu cases we have in an average year.  And China's population is four times ours.

China's real catastrophe is not the coronavirus.  It's the self-inflicted wound of having tried to cover up the first reports of infection last November.  By having done "too little, too late," they now own the crisis.  Beijing has ordered authorities in Wuhan and other infected cities to do whatever it takes to stop the spread of this disease.

Videos have surfaced showing police locking people inside their apartments, forcing others into vans, battalions of armed policemen enforcing quarantines, fleets of trucks fumigating (?) empty streets, bodies in the streets apparently shot by police, and bags of corpses stacked in hospital hallways.

This is the way it works in totalitarian countries.  The panic is real, but the poor people in Wuhan and other quarantined cities are not terrified by the statistics.  They're terrified by authorities doing whatever it takes.

Meanwhile in our country, coronavirus fear is constantly being fanned.  Television doctors report several times a day on the latest numbers and the latest dreadful possibilities.  Every drop in the Dow is ascribed to the "coronavirus effect."  Companies with manufacturing plants in China promise to hasten their moves to Vietnam.  Disruptions in the global supply chain are said to threaten a worldwide recession.  Japan frets about its Summer Olympics. 

China is effectively closed for business, and it will remain so for a while.  Even after the coronavirus has run its course and the fear dissipates, China will remain debilitated.  The damage done to their manufacturing base and to the Chinese international reputation will be permanent.  That's China's real coronavirus catastrophe.

Thirty-five million infections.  Thirty-four thousand deaths.

No, this isn't a worst-case scenario for the coronavirus.  It's a summary of our own seasonal flu last winter (2018–2019), the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has complete numbers.

And those numbers weren't even record-breaking.  The year before was much worse.  The CDC anticipates that this year's flu season will prove milder — from twelve to thirty thousand deaths.  Common Type A (H1N1) and Type B (H3N2) influenzas are the real killers.

Yet all we're hearing about is the dreaded Chinese coronavirus.  The head of the World Health Organization calls it "the worst enemy you can imagine."  The chair of public health medicine at Hong Kong University fears a possible infection rate of 60–80% of the world's population.

Why all the panic?  The coronavirus has caused about 70,000 infections and 1,700 deaths as of this writing, numbers that are scarcely a rounding error for a typical flu season in the U.S.

Part of the concern is because the coronavirus is new and largely unknown.  We don't know where it originated (in bats, snakes, pangolins, in Wuhan's bio-safety level 4 super-lab?), or how easily it can be transmitted between humans, or its deadliness.  (Current figures indicate a fatality rate over two percent, about double that of our influenzas.  This might be explained by conditions in China — the access to medical care and the quality of that care.)

Of greater concern is our lack of trust in China's numbers.  We assume that the Chinese are underreporting their cases of coronavirus.  The only question is, by how much?

If we suppose that coronavirus infections are many times what China is reporting, that would be a serious problem, indeed.  Eventually, the lies would come to light, and the Chinese authorities would be seen as more untrustworthy than they already are.

But even if the number of actual cases were many hundreds of times what China is reporting, they would only approach the number of seasonal flu cases we have in an average year.  And China's population is four times ours.

China's real catastrophe is not the coronavirus.  It's the self-inflicted wound of having tried to cover up the first reports of infection last November.  By having done "too little, too late," they now own the crisis.  Beijing has ordered authorities in Wuhan and other infected cities to do whatever it takes to stop the spread of this disease.

Videos have surfaced showing police locking people inside their apartments, forcing others into vans, battalions of armed policemen enforcing quarantines, fleets of trucks fumigating (?) empty streets, bodies in the streets apparently shot by police, and bags of corpses stacked in hospital hallways.

This is the way it works in totalitarian countries.  The panic is real, but the poor people in Wuhan and other quarantined cities are not terrified by the statistics.  They're terrified by authorities doing whatever it takes.

Meanwhile in our country, coronavirus fear is constantly being fanned.  Television doctors report several times a day on the latest numbers and the latest dreadful possibilities.  Every drop in the Dow is ascribed to the "coronavirus effect."  Companies with manufacturing plants in China promise to hasten their moves to Vietnam.  Disruptions in the global supply chain are said to threaten a worldwide recession.  Japan frets about its Summer Olympics. 

China is effectively closed for business, and it will remain so for a while.  Even after the coronavirus has run its course and the fear dissipates, China will remain debilitated.  The damage done to their manufacturing base and to the Chinese international reputation will be permanent.  That's China's real coronavirus catastrophe.