Whenever health authorities are confronted by disease outbreaks, there are only four basic actions they can take.
One, you act to contain the outbreak.
Two, if containment is not possible you try to delay the spread.
Three, while the outbreak is active, you research its causes and search for a vaccine.
Fourth, you take steps to mitigate the social and economic damage caused by the outbreak.
All of these measures are well known to health officials.
After all, governments have been dealing with disease for hundreds of years. But human nature being what it is, officials do not always act quickly enough or decisively enough.
Had Chinese officials acted quickly to contain the outbreak of the corona virus, we would have avoided all of the problems we’re facing today.
Notification of the novel virus was not made until the end of December. But doctors observed patients with SARS-like symptoms earlier in the month. Government officials chose to ignore those warnings until it was too late.
As bad as that was, the reality of the outbreak is even worse. For patients to have presented themselves with SARS-like symptom in early December means the virus was present in November or even earlier.
And nobody noticed anything?
As a consequence of rampant official denial, the opportunity to contain the virus was lost in Wuhan. Once it was loose in the community it was just a matter of time before it became a raging epidemic.
At that point, all international travel out of Wuhan and Hubei provinces should have been stopped.
Now, a prohibition on travel wouldn’t have stopped the virus from spreading. It is likely a number of infected people had already traveled out of China before the notification to WHO and, as a result, unknowingly spread the disease. But prohibiting people from traveling to or from the hot spot would have reduced the number of people who could spread the disease to zero. That would have delayed further spread. That’s the critical point.
Unfortunately, only a few countries instituted travel bans, so most countries now are effectively in the delay and research phases.
That is why we are hearing daily admonishments to wash our hands, stay home when sick and keep our distance from people.
Now, here’s the problem. Hygiene and social distancing will help, but they’re not going to have big effect on the spread of the disease. Researchers think, after all, that 80 per cent of those infected with the Wuhan virus have no symptoms and do not even know they have it. So this disease will spread.
That’s why some governments have gone to the next level – city wide quarantines and lockdowns. Italy and China have taken this route. But the economic costs are enormous because economic activity grinds to a halt.
And this is where most governments run the risk of dropping the ball. They will basically have to keep individuals, businesses and communities afloat for months as this virus burns itself out. The cost will be in the billions of dollars.
All of which makes China’s efforts to shirk its responsibilities for not containing this virus in the first place so shameful and, frankly, criminal.