In early January LynnDee Summers and I posted a podcast here at the End of History about a “mystery virus” lightly reported on in China. Its symptoms were similar to pneumonia and first seen in mid-December. There was no name for the virus yet. Only a handful of people seemed to be carrying the mystery illness at that time, but it was setting off some small alarms because it reminded people of the SARS outbreak almost 20 years ago. In the case of SARS, China tried to hide the magnitude of the epidemic and as a result, allowed the disease to spread much farther than it otherwise might have. This time, as stated in our early January podcast, China seemed to be responding more responsibly.
Two months later the story has changed. We have a global pandemic on our hands that has spread to 94 countries, infected over 100,000 people, and is getting larger by the day. China itself has nearly 81,000 confirmed cases and more than 3,000 deaths. China appears to be past the worst part of the outbreak while the rest of the world is just beginning to experience it. (The numbers above reflect what was being reported at the time of this writing.)
China’s Incompetent Face Saving Response to COVID19
China’s response to the coronavirus outbreak was not as golden as commentators originally believed and likely contributed to the spread of the virus. The doctor, Li Wenliang, who first sounded alarms for the coronavirus in China, was arrested and forced to sign a document stating he lied. Later he was actually infected with the virus and died.
On January 1, the Chinese government made a brief announcement about the mystery virus saying it was related to a fish market in Wuhan. By the middle of the month, they noted there were no additional cases (the official case count even dropped) after the Wuhan fish market was shut down. This was an animal to human contact disease, not human to human, the appropriate steps had been taken and there was nothing to worry about. That was the official response.
This was the time when the spread of the virus could have been stopped. Instead, a face-saving approach to the growing crisis, which the World Health Organization bought and endorsed, was accepted. By the third week of January, everything began to shift. The fish market story disappeared. The Wuhan Virus (as it was called then) confirmed case count tripled. China began putting neighborhoods and then cities on lockdown. Journalists and citizens who spoke out about the virus were suppressed, and in a few instances disappeared.
The containment-strategy used by China at this point believed the virus could only spread through people who had a fever. They also believed the disease’s duration period was 14 days. Both assumptions were incorrect and allowed for the virus to continue to accelerate even while major cities like Wuhan were locked down and morphed into ghost towns.
As the disease continued to spread and the death count continued to rise, outrage within China grew. In response, the Chinese government clamped down harder on voices of dissent and suspicion. They began to point blame on different people and groups, including a conspiracy theory that involved the US government at one point. Xi Jinping appointed a new head to the task force fighting the virus, a mathematician with no expertise in health or medicine. The numbers continued to climb.
Additional Reading –
- How China’s Incompetence Endangered the World (Foreign Policy)
Iranian Game of Deny and Delay
Iran is currently the home for the fastest growth and spread of COVID19 in the world. Today there are nearly 6,000 confirmed cases in Iran, a near 20% increase from yesterday’s numbers. There are only 145 official deaths from the virus in Iran, but (as I wrote yesterday) there is a widespread belief that the confirmed cases and deaths are being falsified by the government. The BBC reported at the end of February a confirmed case count based upon their sources that were nearly six times what the Iranian government was reporting. Leading health experts suggest the actual number of infected people is closer to 28,000 in Iran.
Iran, like China before them, relied upon denial and delay as a strategy to fight the virus for weeks. As they did this the virus spread from Iran to Afghanistan, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, and Pakistan.
Three dozen members of Iran’s government have been infected with the virus. This includes a vice president and a former head of the health ministry who scoffed at the idea of quarantining cities in the Islamic Republic of Iran. While other parts of the world suspended flights to China, Iran feared to offend this valuable economic trading partner. Flights continued and the virus spread. An Iranian businessman who traveled to Wuhan China is believed to be the first to carry the disease into Iran. From there it spread to all 31 of the nation’s provinces. Shiite pilgrims to Iran then carried the virus to other parts of the world.
Iran’s Supreme Leader denied the magnitude of the coronavirus crisis in his country. He even suggested it was a foreign conspiracy meant to hinder Iran’s elections. The elections continued as planned at the end of February. Iranians went to the polls, greeted one another with a kiss on the cheek as they met in the streets and continued to spread the virus.
As the health organizations of the world doubted the veracity of Iran’s official numbers reported for COVID19 the nation’s leaders finally began taking significant steps this week to slow the spread of the virus. Schools are now closed until April. Friday prayers were canceled. Subways have been disinfected.
But the US Will Be Smarter
At a press conference on February 25, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chided the Iranian regime for their lack of transparency and preparedness in the face of COVID19. “The United States is deeply concerned by information indicating that the Iranian regime may have suppressed vital details about the outbreak in that country. All nations, including Iran, should tell the truth about the coronavirus and cooperate with international aid organizations.” Pompeo did not realize the level of incompetency the US was about to demonstrate before the world in their own handling of the coronavirus.
The day after these statements on Iran from Pompeo, President Trump held a news conference announcing Vice President Mike Pence would be leading the effort to fight coronavirus in the US. The press conference on February 26, was filled with dangerous inaccuracies that highlighted the US government’s own incompetent approach to the pandemic.
President Trump said the US cases of COVID 19 are “going very substantially down, not up.” This was false. At the time of the press conference when President Trump made this statement, there were zero COVID19 deaths in the US. Today there are 17. The US had its first confirmed local transmission case (someone who did not get the disease after going to China) that same day. Today there are 305 confirmed cases in the US.
The President said a vaccine would soon be developed for the vaccine. Health experts and pharmaceutical company CEOs have said we are at least a year away from a vaccine.
The head of the Department of Homeland Security said that influenza has a mortality rate of around 2% which suggests COVID19 is not much worse than the flu. This is incorrect. The mortality rate of the flu is .1%. COVID19 has a mortality rate of 3.4% according to the World Health Organization (WHO). This makes COVID19 thirty-four times more deadly than the flu. The COVID19 mortality rate provided by WHO could change over time as more data is developed but the discrepancy between what is being said by the Department of Homeland Security in the US and the WHO is clearly a significant cause for concern.
Dr. Nancy Messonnier Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases has been sounding the alarm about the spread of COVID19 in the US for weeks. Like her predecessors in China and Iran, the leaders of our government have ignored her.
(Trump: CDC “doctors say how do you know so much about this? Maybe I have a natural ability.”)
Even as the Trump administration has demonstrated amazing combinations of ignorance and incompetence toward the COVID19 pandemic, his opposition among the Democrats in the government and the media have hardly shown greater levels of responsibility. While they jumped to point out the President’s faults, few provided alternative voices or leadership. COVID19, as almost everything does in America, turned into a political issue. Meanwhile, the disease is spreading and few steps are being taken to stop the pandemic.
It’s Likely Already Much Worse Than We Are Being Told
As noted above, the World Health Organization recently updated its understanding of the mortality rate for COVID19 to 3.5%. It was previously at 2.5%. This means that out of 100 people infected with the COVID19 coronavirus, 2.5 die on average. The mortality rate is calculated by taking the total COVID19 deaths and dividing it by the total confirmed cases. The reason for the recent update was based on new data that has come out of China where the virus originated. The older the data becomes, the more reliable it is.
As an example, China currently has 80,652 confirmed cases and 3,070 deaths. The calculation for mortality rate then is 3,070/80,652 = 3.8%. That is slightly higher than the number from the WHO which means either China has more cases than they are currently reporting, or the WHO mortality rate number needs to be higher.
The US currently has a mortality rate of 5%. The number of deaths to confirmed cases in the US is too high. The most likely cause for this anomaly is that there are more cases than what is currently being confirmed by the government in the US. As we saw in China and Iran, so long as those cases go underreported the pandemic grows worse. As long as denial and delay is the operating response to COVID19 the likelihood for a serious pandemic to sweep across the country grows.
Former President Franklin Roosevelt said at this inauguration, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We have more than fear itself to be concerned about today. COVID19 is a legitimate threat that has the potential to impact lives across the world without discrimination on grounds of race, class, or ethnicity. But the greater fear today should be the incompetence of our leaders who are making this crisis much worse than it could be.