Diplomat Risk Intelligence | Risk Intelligence | Security | East Asia

Wuhan Coronavirus Panic Grips China and the World

Are China’s measures to keep the virus from spreading before the Lunar New Year likely to work?

Ankit Panda
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Wuhan Coronavirus Panic Grips China and the World
Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

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Things are moving fast with the Wuhan coronavirus (2019-nCoV, per the WHO) outbreak. The story has quickly bubbled to the top of the global agenda, making headlines around the world. Much still remains unclear about the origins of the virus,its exact incubation period, and threat to humans. The World Health Organization met for an emergency meeting this week, but reconvened to decide whether or not the virus merited the designation of a global emergency—something that would have serious implications on everything from air travel to national public health systems.

China, meanwhile, has taken drastic steps—unprecedented in modern global health policy—to attempt to stop the spread of the virus. On Thursday morning at 10 a.m. local time, the city of Wuhan—a city of 11 million and ground zero for the outbreak of the virus—was locked down. No one was meant to get out of the city. Huanggang, a second major central Chinese city, with a population of 7.4 million, was also locked down.

The efficacy of such drastic steps remains indeterminate. In a Q&A with the AP, a WHO representative suggested that the jury was out on how effective the lockdown would be at this point. Gauden Galea, the WHO representative in China, had the following to say:

To my knowledge, trying to contain a city of 11 million people is new to science. It has not been tried before as a public health measure, so we cannot at this stage say it will or will not work. If this is happening we will note carefully to what extent it is maintained and how long it can take. There are pros and cons to such a decision. Such a decision obviously has social and economic impacts that are considerable. On the other hand, it demonstrates a very strong public health commitment and a willingness to take dramatic action. It sends a message to Wuhan, to China and to the rest of the countries. It remains to be seen what its effect will be.

A final factor complicating the fallout of this outbreak is the pending Lunar New Year holiday in China, which normally leads to hundreds of millions taking to the air and to trains to move around the country. Wuhan, incidentally, happens to be a major central transportation hub. Just click through to the following graphic from the South China Morning Post.

Chinese state media has reported on the totality of the preventive measures taken by the National Health Commission amid the outbreak.

The outbreak has quickly spread regionally, with cases reported in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, the United States, Vietnam, and Singapore. Over at The Diplomat, Tae-jun Kang writes about the South Korean reaction to the virus. Meanwhile, Nick Aspinwall draws attention to Taiwan’s continued exclusion from the WHO and the implications for public health on the island. (Taipei has closed its borders to Wuhan residents as a precautionary measure.)

As of this newsletter’s writing, infection figures from the virus remained fluid, but more than 650 cases had been confirmed around the world, with nearly 20 fatalities. Caixin, a China-based news portal, reported that Chinese authorities expect that infections could grow into the thousands. There’s additionally widespread concerns that Chinese authorities, failing to learn the lessons of the early-2000s SARS outbreak, have continued to underreport the severity of the outbreak in Wuhan and elsewhere.

Bottom Line: Amid dramatic shutdowns affecting millions, much remains uncertain about the Wuhan coronavirus. International health authorities continue to scrutinize the virus’ spread and effects.

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