Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Coronavirus: Game Over?

Just a typical day in Wuhan, China.  Man relaxing in a local park, not a care in the world.  Little does he know that medical experts are actually worried this time.

Coming to a hospital near you.  Above is a video, taken at a hospital in Wuhan, China, in the early days of the outbreak.  The woman speaking is saying that the people lying on gurneys, with their faces covered, are corpses.  This video was posted on the Weibu social media website (like a Chinese Facebook), then quickly taken down.

They Usually Project Confidence

Have you ever noticed how, when the latest dread disease arises, medical experts most often speak with confidence?

They generally reassure the public that the disease is under control, or if it isn't, modern health systems are advanced enough to soon get it under control.

This has been true throughout the spate of scary killer bugs going around these past two decades or so.  SARS?  It was never a threat outside China.  

MERS?  Very, very dangerous, but not highly transmissable.  Never really got a foothold.

Ebola?  A terrible tragedy in West Africa, especially Liberia, but you have to understand they barely have a health system there.  The disease would almost certainly run into a brick wall outside that area.  Which it did, in fact, do.

Even the H1N1 virus, the so-called Swine Flu that emerged in Mexico back in 2009 (and which killed between 250,000 and half a million people around the world), didn't frighten the experts.

It scared the hell out of regular people, but experts tended to "urge calm," and suggested they were "cautiously optimistic" about how it would turn out.   

That isn't how they're talking about the Wuhan coronavirus (or Covid-19), which emerged as the latest threat to life as we know it just over two months ago.

Remain calm.  All is well.

What Are They Saying?

Thee Optimist is a fan of remaining calm in all circumstances.  His posts on the West African Ebola Crisis of 2014 are good examples of responsible reporting, that resist getting carried away by the emotions of the moment.

That said, Thee Optimist is intrigued (but not worried, never worried) by the words coming from the mouths of high-level medical experts, when they talk about the new coronavirus.

Here are a few quotes:

"I think it is likely we will see a global pandemic.  If a pandemic happens, 40% to 70% of people world-wide are likely to be infected in the coming year."

Marc Lipsitch, professor of Epidemiology, Harvard School of Public Health, February 14, 2020


"It could infect 60% of the global population."

Gabriel Leung, Chair of Public Health Medicine, Hong Kong University, February 11, 2020


"It's very, very transmissable, and it's almost certainly going to be a pandemic."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, February 2, 2020


"I hope this outbreak may be over in something like April."

Nanshan Zhong, Chinese government epidemiologist, first person to describe the SARS virus, February 11, 2020

Thought I might go for a swim.

Law of Large Numbers

As you might know, the new coronavirus seems to have emerged at a food market specializing in wild game, or "bush meat," in the city of Wuhan, China.  

Coronaviruses that infect humans tend to start in animal species, often bats, then mutate and leap the interspecies barrier to humans.

This seems to have taken place in early December, when vague news reports appeared describing how 6 or 8 people had come down with a coronavirus illness similar to SARS. 

Of course, inquiring minds don't actually believe that story.  No.  They believe the virus is a bioweapon leaked from a Chinese government lab.  

Of course it is.  You'd be a fool to think otherwise. 

Regardless of where it came from, starting from that tiny group of people, in just over two months the virus has infected at least 75,000 humans (this number is probably low) and killed more than 2,000. 

That's pretty fast work.  Moreover, it has managed to escape the quarantine in China, has reached more than 30 countries, and is spreading in places like Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand.  South Korea, in particular, is beginning to show exponential growth in its number of cases.

And just in recent days, the disease has had sudden, unexpected outbreaks in Italy and Iran.  Now that is the hallmark of a virus that's going to be difficult to stop - popping up without warning in places far from the original outbreak.  

It's looking more and more like Nanshan Zhong's optimism about the outbreak ending soon is misplaced optimism.  

Further, what the percentages cited above don't explicitly tell you is what all this implies.  The implications are not great.

Bring Out Your Dead

At the moment, the Wuhan coronavirus appears to kill about 2% of the people it infects.  This is a rate about 20 times higher than your typical seasonal flu.  

There are currently about 7.5 billion people on earth.  If you were to do a little math... 

...you would quickly become bogged down and confused, then decide to do something else.  We don't do math here in America. 

Who cares about the coronavirus, anyway?  The Masked Singer is on.

No, no, no.  Stick with me, it's not hard.  

If you take the 60% infection estimate cited above (as a ballpark figure)... well, 60% of the global population is 4.5 billion people.  That's a whale of a lot of people to come down with this virus.

What's even a little more disconcerting (but not scary, never scary) is that 2% of 4.5 billion is 90 million people. 

If the medical experts are right, and the coronavirus infects a large percentage of the world's population, this suggests that tens of millions of people will die from the disease. 

This is bad.  But if you look on the bright side, we do have plenty of people.  Ninety million gone would hardly make a dent.  

Want to follow along as the Wuhan coronavirus slowly, slowly (then suddenly and with alarming speed) makes its way around the world?  Just go here for daily updates.    

In the mid-1300s, the Black Plague killed an estimated 50 million people in Europe, more than half of Europe's population at the time.  Entire regions of the continent were completely depopulated.  The disease may have killed 100 or 200 million people around the world.  In Europe, doctors wore the above elaborate get-up.  It's not like their medieval voodoo was helping the patients any, so there was no sense getting sick themselves.  

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