As of this podcast, something over 2,000 people have died from Corona virus infections, all but six of them in China. About 75 thousand people have been confirmed as infected, again, all but a handful in China. Of the 29 countries that have reported at least one infection, the majority have reported less than 10 infections, and as I say, the 28 countries other than China with reported cases have reported a combined total of six fatalities.
This is clearly serious. 2,000 people dead is serious by any measure. We have the whole airline industry in chaos about an apparently faulty aircraft that led to the deaths of a fraction of that number. And the number of infections, along with the much smaller number of people dead – the death rate would seem to be something around two or three per cent – those numbers aren’t the whole story. Throughout what we know of human history, there have been pandemics with terrible consequences.
The Spanish flu of 1918 killed at least 40 million people, it could have been 100 million, we don’t really know. To put that in context, World War 1, which had just ended, which resonates through our culture, which is still taught in detail in history classes, memorialized in thousands of locations across Europe and beyond, World War 1 has inspired hundreds of novels, poems, TV shows, and films not least the recent Oscar-winner 1917; World War 1 killed less than 20 million people over four years. The Spanish flu, in just one year killed an absolute minimum of double that.
So it’s worth paying attention to the Corona virus not just because of the people already dead or infected, but because of the numbers of people who could potentially be infected in the future, if the disease was left unchecked.
But it’s not being left unchecked. There are quarantines and other extreme measures being put in place to prevent its spread. You might have seen the stop motion video – that hardly required stop motion – of Huoshenshan hospital being build from scratch in 10 days.
Dozens of airlines including British Airways and Lufthansa have cancelled all flights to China. Many countries have banned Chinese people from even applying for visas to enter. Ships have been quarantined, millions have been donated, and China has closed down whole sectors of its economy, not to mention curtailing internal travel and even switching off elevator systems in large apartment blocks to discourage people from going out.
Some of those measures maybe the reason why the spread of the virus has been contained. In the past few days, the number of new daily infections in China has been falling every day, and no other country has enough cases to make a meaningful measurement. That might not continue, but that’s the situation as of now.
Or they may not be the reason. For every Spanish flu, there are thousands of infections that kill a few people, or a few dozen, or nobody at all, and then just disappear naturally. This sort of thing has a serious risk of a mild negative outcome, and a mild risk of a serious negative outcome We don’t know where on the scale from Spanish flu to mild Chinese headcold this, or any other virus will fall. What I find interesting is the speed with which governments acted, closing borders, stopping air routes, quarantining ships, not to mention China closing down a huge chunk of its economy. It’s interesting to compare that to the reaction to the threat of climate change, which by all accounts has a seriously high risk of a very serious outcome.