Opinion

Coronavirus: fear and misinformation

As soon as the media furore around Brexit began to die down, a new obsession arose from its ashes – Wuhan Coronavirus.  From reading the daily headlines, a global catastrophe might seem around the corner with infections seemingly doubling every day and government advice and travel restrictions growing.

However, based on a careful reading of the facts, the widespread panic that has broken out appears exaggerated and unnecessary.

A virus has infected 19 million people in the US alone this year, and led to 10,000 deaths.  This virus is the seasonal flu. Coronavirus, while heart-breaking for those involved, pales in comparison, infecting 45,171 people and leading to 1,115 deaths. The severity of the virus is as of yet unknown, but early figures point to an infection that is indeed severe, but not on the scale of the 2003 SARS outbreak, comparisons to which have been a source of widespread concern. SARS eventually resulted in 774 deaths, a figure which does not fully express its severity. SARS was found to have a 9.6% mortality rate, meaning a 1 in 10 chance of death if you were infected. In comparison, early indications suggest that the Wuhan coronavirus has around a 2% mortality rate. However, as the disease’s symptoms are often not particularly severe in healthy people and can be confused with other viral infections such as the flu, it is likely that many more people than we know have been infected with it. Whilst this sounds concerning, it suggests that the mortality rate could be significantly less than 2%, placing this virus closer to the seasonal flu in severity than to SARS.

On the flip side, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about the spread of this virus. The first is the dramatic increase in globalisation since 2003, and particularly the rise in air passenger numbers. The number of passengers carried globally has more than doubled from 2003 to today, and this interconnectedness will make it easier for coronavirus to spread between countries than SARS in 2003. In addition, the indications are that this virus appears to be more infectious than many, with there being a possibility of infecting others before symptoms show, making it harder for doctors to isolate those infected and limit the spread of the disease.

There is also concern about how forthcoming the Chinese government has been around the outbreak, with concerns that there may be significantly more fatalities than reported and that information has been suppressed due to public panic. The virus will also inevitably have much larger economic impacts than SARS due to the much larger role that China plays in the world economy. China’s 1st quarter year-on-year GDP growth could fall to 2%, down dramatically from 6% the year before. However, the extent to which this could be mitigated due to e-commerce and the greater digitalisation of our economy is unknown and past evidence suggests that the situation will return to normal relatively quickly once the outbreak has come to an end.

We must also acknowledge the importance of governmental response to these situations, and this is an area where there is a marked contrast from 2003. Despite legitimate complaints about the complacency of the Wuhan government and actions of the police in silencing a doctor who spoke up, the overall response of the Chinese government has been much more decisive than in 2003. The imposition of quarantine on Wuhan and many other cities around the region is certainly a draconian response, but it is one which has the potential to help contain the outbreak. The slight fall in the rate of new infections in the last few days may be tentative evidence of this. When SARS was first publicly reported in February 2003, 5 people had already died and a further 300 had been infected.

After the earliest cases of coronavirus were reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO), it took only one week for scientists to sequence its genome and then develop tests for the virus. Some areas of the response have undoubtedly been mismanaged, such as the announcement of quarantine in Wuhan 8 hours before enforcement began, which may have allowed up to 1 million potentially infected people to leave the city. The governmental failure to acknowledge the seriousness of the virus initially has meant the virus has been major concern in China, where almost all of the deaths from infection have taken place. It may also have political consequences for the country’s leadership, as the assertion that one party rule is more able to effectively respond to issues such as these without the encumbrance of democratic accountability and the free flow of information is proving to be on thin ice.

However, from a UK perspective, there is little reason to be concerned about the virus. The response from the WHO and Western governments should be sufficient to stop similar proliferation of the virus occurring in other countries as only a small fraction of cases have so far occurred outside China. Like the SARS outbreak in 2003, it is likely that warm weather in the summer will bring the proliferation of the virus to a close.