62. Coronavirus Thoughts
It’s instructive to see how countries around the globe are handling the current pandemic – and to compare how we're doing in the United States to how other nations are coping with the scourge. Wikipedia (one of the great resources of the digital age) has offered up a slew of comprehensive reports on how the virus has affected many nations and how each has responded. I’ve taken advantage of them in writing this posting. They can be accessed on Wikipedia by entering “Coronavirus in [name of country]” in your search engine.
The disease originated in China, with the first case reported in the middle of December, 2019. It spread from there. From what I’ve gathered from Wikipedia, most European states (Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Sweden, Finland) experienced their first infection in late January, 2020 within a week of each other. The disease was first detected in the US about a week or two earlier. Other countries (Iran, Israel, Switzerland, Portugal, New Zealand) encountered the virus sometime later. My understanding is that most countries, like the US, quickly curtailed travel from China and isolated Chinese individuals with the initial infections. In many places, the disease seemed controlled. But soon it sprang up again, apparently due to its introduction by Europeans, particularly Italian visitors or returnees. There's also the unlikely possibility that the virus mutated in its residence in Italy and became more infective and lethal. Or perhaps Italians are more gregarious and encounter more people than the Chinese. At any rate, sequencing studies suggest that the great number of infections in New York are due to virus that originated in Italy, and it seems to me reasonable (but not proven) that much of the further spread of the disease spread from there. It is stunning to realize that in less than 10 weeks, the number of infected individuals outside of China has gone from a few dozen to close to two million as of midday, April 14.
The response to the contagion has varied from one nation to another. But it appears that almost all countries have instituted similar quarantines and have already experienced a peak in infections, with the highest number of deaths coming soon. It looks like we have a way to go before it hits its heights in the United States. However, what to do in the intermediate term has caused a rift in the United States and other countries. There are those who contend that the shutdown has already been too prolonged, and that the damage to the economy will cause a depression/recession/inflation that will do more harm than the virus ever could. The other side argues that not keeping the isolation in place will risk hundreds of thousands of lives. While I’m neither an economist nor an epidemiologist, the solution probably lies somewhere in-between. We’ll want to lift the isolation as quickly as possible by identifying those who already have recovered from the disease and presumably can’t be reinfected and are free from the virus. This will require testing, both for the virus and for antibodies against it. Testing for the presence of virus (via PCR) will also have to be increased to identify carriers and more stringent measures will have to be introduced in order to isolate them from others, particularly the elderly and infirm. Testing for viral antigens will be useful in determining the optimum time to open schools and businesses.
Meanwhile, with some time on my hands, I’ve made a spreadsheet comparing per capita results of infections and deaths in various places as of 11AM on Saturday, April 11. The numbers of infections and deaths come from Johns Hopkins University (https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html) but their site hasn’t arranged the data on a per person basis. I know that some countries (China, Russia, Iran) are probably not releasing reliable statistics (although I have no evidence that this is so) and testing is incomplete everywhere, but a comparison of the US versus other countries is still illuminating. For instance, I thought that the number of deaths/case would say something about the medical systems in various countries (or perhaps their demographics). Maybe it does, but the UK stands out as being particularly worse off with deaths/case only behind Italy. They haven’t even reached a peak in the number of cases yet. And look at New Zealand. How do you explain only 4 deaths from over 1,000 infections? Were they better prepared because of previous viral infestations? It’s probable that the deaths/case numbers reflect an early stage of the pandemic because death is a lagging indicator but New Zealand has had a decreasing case load for quite a while.
I’ve had some emails from friends who blame our current situation on the Chinese government. There seems to be no question that news of the initial infections were suppressed by local officials and that the government didn’t broadcast the severity of the illness in a timely manner. But we shouldn’t have had to rely on the truthfulness of the Chinese authorities for information about matters of such importance. That’s what our intelligence apparatus is for. I’m not sure whether they weren’t aware of the coming problem or whether they did their job and their higher ups didn’t listen (probably the latter).
I’ve also had some discussion about whether the virus was inadvertently released from a Chinese virus laboratory. Again, there seems to be no argument that one of the Chinese facilities hasn’t been as careful in handling deadly viruses as they should have been. Everyone with the exception of some fringe groups, however, seems to agree that the release wasn’t deliberate. My feeling is that placing blame isn’t particularly helpful in dealing with the current situation around the world.
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