A woman waits to enter a tent erected to test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Brooklyn Hospital Center in Brooklyn, New York City, US, March 19, 2020.
At the beginning of this month, a group of my family and friends departed for a tour of Easter Island and Patagonia. At the time, Silicon Valley, my home base, was “normal,” in other words not paying much attention to the coronavirus contagion happening in Asia.
Two weeks later, we had to cut short our tour and hurry our way home as best as we could. From Punta Arenas in southern tip of Chile, our group broke up into smaller groups and grabbed whatever seats available to fly to Santiago, an international hub, and continued home from there. Argentina had closed their border to international visitors and any new arrivals faced 14-day self-quarantine at their own expense. Our tour operator thought it prudent to get us home before Chilean government decide to follow suit, which it did two days after we got home.
It was the world’s most dramatic two weeks for the turmoil caused by the novel coronavirus. From the giant statues of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) and scenic beauty of Patagonia, I followed with enforced detachment. The World Health Organization declared Covid-19 as a world pandemic during this period. With the coronavirus spreading to 80 countries in a blink of eye, the stock market plummeted to a level not seen since Trump came into office.
Italy follows the Wuhan Model
The disease hit Italy especially hard. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte attempted to contain the disease to one region but changed his mind overnight and declared a national lockdown. He saw that for any hope to contain the contagion, he would need to follow the Wuhan protocol and take the draconian steps to lockdown. Thus, the world began to appreciate that the “Wuhan Model” was the only way to control the epidemic.
Up to this point, China was subject to ridicule and abuse by the western media. They said: China acted like a police state that ran roughshod over the civil liberties of its people, China was not transparent and suppress the people’s right to free speech, the Chinese were dirty and lack hygiene, China was “sick man” of Asia all over again, etc.
Battling epidemics in the past has always been an international collaborative effect. This time the United States stayed on the sideline but got very active at the blame game. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as America’s lead diplomat insisted that Beijing has kept the true nature of the disease under wraps until it couldn’t be hidden anymore. Thus, he insists China’s lack of candor has cost the U.S. valuable time in preparing to fight the disease, which he persisted in calling as the Wuhan virus until his boss overruled by naming it Chinese virus.
Nature magazine is the referee
Thanks to third party, reputable publications, it’s possible to seek substance or lack thereof to support the U.S. accusations. A most useful compilation of events comes from Nature. One of the statements from the March 19 posting said, “By contrast, three weeks after the first known case of the disease now known as COVID-19, China had notified the WHO of a spike in cases of a pneumonia-like disease. Two weeks after that, the coronavirus had been isolated, genetically sequenced, and a diagnostic test developed, giving China the tools it needed to launch one of the greatest infectious-disease containment efforts the world has ever seen.” (underline for emphasis is mine.)
At about the same time that the disease can be transmitted from person to person was established, Wuhan immediately imposed city wide lockdown which quickly included the Hubei Province and a population of 50 million.
To recap, looking in retrospect December 8 was considered the appearance of the first suspicious case. Multiple cases of unusual fever appeared at the Wuhan hospitals on December 21. This raised the alarm of the medical staff and was reported to the district level Center for Disease Control. In turn the developments were reported up the line to provincial CDC and the national CDC was notified on December 30. Next day the people of Wuhan were warned, and the contagion reported on China’s central TV and officials of WHO notified.
Bear in mind that at this point in time, the cause of pneumonia and fever was not yet understood, the virus had not been identified and genetic sequence or diagnostic tests remain yet to be done. Accusations of a China cover-up seem farfetched if not outright ludicrous.
Yet America’s mainstream media can be most persuasive. They have blanketed the media and convince nearly everyone that something nefarious was going on in China. To this day, even after much more information has come to light, U.S. academics, pundits, talking heads and of course politicians of the entire spectrum continue to insist that China had unfortunately covered up.
Robert O’Brien, the U.S. national security adviser said, “China had reacted slowly to the coronavirus, probably costing the world two months when it could have been preparing.” In light of the timeline presented by Nature and other postings, some responsible member of the media should ask O’Brien for an accounting of how he came up with the two months number.
Wuhan’s lead time wasted
Finally, on March 13, New York Times exercised a modicum of fairness in reporting by publishing the observations of their Beijing bureau chief. He compared the rigorous precautions taken at the Beijing International Airport with the lackadaisical handling of arriving travelers at London. His concluding lament: China with their draconian measures bought precious months for the world to prepare and the West squandered that time.
Let the record show that the two months, that the novel coronavirus was known, was indeed squandered by the United States. President Trump did nothing. He thought the virus will go away when the weather gets warm. Even as late as February 25, he assured the American public that he has the matter “very well under control.” The first case in the U.S. was reported in Seattle on January 19. Since his assertion that all’s well, he has taken to calling Covid-19 as “Chinese virus,” as if that will ameliorate his having screwed up.
The same Nature post said, “The SARS outbreak went on for three months before being identified as a distinct disease. Then, for nearly two more months, it was a disease in search of a pathogen: the identification and genomic sequencing of the virus itself largely came from researchers outside China.” But China learned from having to deal with this 2003 outbreak that also originated from China.
China’s findings about the virus
China was prepared to deal with the exponential nature of how contagious diseases spread and how to contain the spreading of the contagion. As soon as an outbreak is detected, China launched investigation and research. Their findings: The public health officials must as quickly as possible establish the safe distance (about 2 meters) to avoid transmission from one person to another, the genetic profile of the virus was identified so as to develop diagnostic tests to detect the presence of the virus and the duration the virus will survive on public surfaces such as door handles, etc. was about 9 days. There was no evidence sunlight will kill the virus as wished for by President Trump.
A crucial outcome of China’s intense research was the discovery that a patient can be contagious for five days before he/she shows symptoms of the illness. On the average, during the hidden period, a virus carrier could infect anywhere from 4 to 8 others. Since these infected by the primary carrier would also be asymptomatic (that means they don’t show any signs of the illness, Mr. Pompeo), each could infect still another 4 to 8 more before they show signs of being ill. Thus, each original patient can cause the infection of a minimum of 4x4 = 16 or as many as 64 others. This is just a simple illustration of the exponential power of transmission.
Because of the explosive nature of exponential rate of transmission, it became obvious and necessary that a total lockdown was essential to block the paths of transmission. It was the only means to contain the illness. Critics call the Wuhan lockdown draconian, but the epidemic could not be stopped without that step. Italy has recognized mathematical necessity of the lockdown and soon the U.S. will have to face the same harsh reality, no thanks to the frat boys on the Spring break who will contribute to the explosion to come.
It took Wuhan about one month from lockdown to reporting no new cases. As Pueho showed in his comprehensive analysis of the exponential nature of pandemics, the sooner transmission is halted and contained, and sooner new cases will stop appearing. He calls this flatlining of the total population of cases. Readers that want to understand why time to act is so important to minimizing death from the disease will find the answers in his post. Someone in the White House needs to read it.
China now helping others
Having shown the world how to contain the pandemic, China is ready to help others. They are sending teams to Italy and Spain to help treatment and containment. President of Serbia has asked for help and Beijing has responded within 24 hours. Cynics like to call this an Xi Jinping victory lap. That’s nonsense. China has learned, and apparently the U.S, has not, that pandemics affect everyone in the world, immediately at the site of the outbreak and everywhere else in time. Helping anyone else is in self-interest.
There are some loose ends to wrap up before concluding this discussion. The western media and to some extent the Chinese netizens lionized Dr. Li Wenliang as a heroic whistleblower on the novel coronavirus. He was no such person. On December 30, he shared his concern with his chat group about an unfamiliar fever he observed. The local police called him in for a cautionary conversation. He was not arrested and did not sit in jail but went back to work as an ophthalmologist. Subsequently the Wuhan police apologized to his family after he died from the coronavirus.
WHO first visited China to understand and to devise a plan to contain the disease in January. Since then Washington and Beijing began to snipe at each other. Commerce Secretary Ross sorted of initiated by expressing half-hearted condolences to China while saying out loud that maybe the flu will encourage jobs to come back to the U.S.
Then the mutual spitting contest intensified. A glaring example is when Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) speculated that the virus was man-made from a biological lab in Wuhan and was accidentally leaked out. He offered no proof or evidence to back his contention, but the media immediately picked up and proliferated the story into a near virtual fact. As one commentator in Taiwan observed, when you are one of one hundred most senior legislators of the most powerful nation in the world, your statements are taken seriously by everyone.
Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded in kind, claiming American soldiers competing in the multi-national games in October seeded the virus, but MFA also did not present much evidence to back up their accusations either. There were rumors in China’s cyberspace that alleged the complicity of CIA and offered as evidence that the American team did poorly and did not dominate as American athletes usually do in international games. For two great nations to devolve into such petty pissing contest has to be disheartening and embarrassing.
Pompeo makes lofty declarations
As if to keep the controversy from getting out of hand, Secretary Mike Pompeo’s held a press conference on 3/17/20. He said, “Now is the time to solve this global pandemic and work to take down risks to Americans and people all across the world.” This is a fine sentiment, indeed, especially coming from someone accused of trying to take over a German company said to be on the verge of developing a vaccine for Covid-19.
According to rumors, Pompeo’s intention was to acquire and move the company into the US and keep the vaccine to serve America first. The alarmed German government stopped the process and kept the company in Germany. It’s a matter of public record that Pompeo is proud of his self-proclaimed reputation as a liar. Perhaps that’s why Chancellor Angela Merkel don’t trust him.
Historically, international collaboration to fight pandemics has been a given. The outbreak of SARS in 2003 caught China flatfooted. Up to that time, they had limited experience in dealing with infectious diseases. The Center for Disease Control of Atlanta sent teams to Beijing, first to help the Chinese counterparts contain the epidemic and later to discuss and plan on collaboration and sharing of data and experiences.
In 2014 the Obama Administration reached out to China and invited their collaboration to fight the deadly Ebola epidemic in West Africa, notably in Sierra Leone. The team effort was highly successful, but it should be noted that many other countries joined in the efforts to contain the frightening high fatality disease. Everybody have a stake in protecting the health of the people and keep above politics.
When we returned to California from our interrupted travel, we immediately stayed home in accordance with the “shelter-in-place” edit issued by Governor Gavin Newsom. Hopefully, the measures will be in time to keep the contagion from blowing up into another Italy or worse. In the event the Trump Administration let Covid-19 pandemic run out of control, I am confident China, with experience, expertise and technology developed in the past few months will be standing by to help. It’ll only need a White House attitudinal change and dine on a humble pie or two.