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 February 2, 2020  Posted by at 3:30 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  11 Responses »

Samuel Colman The Edge of Doom 1836-38


What the future will bring for the 2019nCoV novel Wuhan coronavirus is still unclear. An epidemic it already is, but is it also a pandemic? Some 20 countries have reported infections, but it still could all fizzle out; 305 deaths can be forgotten by next week. Nobody can tell you how this will play out, not even the most experienced and/or smartest virologists and other experts.

Because there’s no telling what viruses will do, not even for them, and because while they have some idea about the infinitesimal size and lifespan of viruses, “ordinary” people have no grasp of either, and that includes managers, planners and politicians. Whether in the rich west or in “up and coming” China.


The timeline is quite literally terribly obvious. In early December -and it could have been even earlier-, it was obvious to doctors and Communist Party (CCP) politicians in Wuhan that something was wrong. But their painfully predictable reaction was to hope this would pass. Never a bad word should be uttered about the Party, and nothing said that could embarrass it.

December passed, as news was getting worse and more obvious due to a large number of “pneumonia” patients. Chinese doctors published an article in the Lancet this week (this week, 6 weeks after the fact!) saying human-to-human transmission had been established by mid-December.

But the code of silence was not broken, even when a man died from the virus on January 9. It took until mid-January before word got out, a full week later. By then millions of people had left and/or entered Wuhan, a city of 11 million, potentially infecting millions of other Chinese and perhaps people abroad. 5 million later left the city for Lunar New Year.

On January 10, the virus was defined and the sequence was shared, but testing didn’t start for another week; patients were registered as pneumonia sufferers, including those that died (we have no idea how many there were).



Then, mid January, doctors starting testing for the virus. The first “exported” case was noted in Thailand on January 13, but it still took more time for the potential threat to be realized and reported. The Party boys were still hoping it would all pass. Can you blame them? They are civil servants, they don’t know anything about viruses, or their threat.

Ironically, over 300 civil servants (Party officials) and health care workers were sanctioned very recently for not doing enough. The Party makes sure the blame is put on individuals, not on itself. Even if all they’ve done is follow the party line. It’s very simply how the system works. And not just in China. If the virus might come to a town near you, check where the blame is placed. It won’t be the president or prime minister, health workers will be first in line, civil servants second.

It’s good to note how fast the novel virus has spread. If only to show what those who are determined to keep such a thing silent are up against. Can’t be easy. 291 cases on Jan 20, 14,562 cases 13 days later. Those are exponential numbers, even if the number of fatalities “only” rose by 46 overnight.

It’s also good to keep in mind that the main threat in viruses is their ability to mutate and become deadlier. This virus now has at least those 14,562 hosts which they can use to mutate in. Hong Kong University doctor and epidemiologist Gabriel Leung and his team said in a Jan 31 report: “In our baseline scenario, we estimated 75,185 infections as of Jan 25.” . And they were reporting on Wuhan alone. In other words, well over 5 times as many hosts and chances for the virus to mutate in just one city. In a city of 11 million people, numbers like that are perhaps not that extreme.



Back to politics. We have had two phases so far. 1 is first discovery followed by total silence. 2 is damage control, and deflecting all blame from the Party.

We are now in phase 3. The WHO, which was caught napping as much as the Party in phase 2, lavishes great praise on that same Party now for its “extraordinary safety measures”. Locking down entire cities (increasingly people are not even allowed to leave their homes), speed-building hospitals, you name it. And the WHO is not the only entity praising the Party.

The reason why there is so much emphasis on this is that the CCP is desperate to show everyone, at home and abroad, that it is in control. That there is no reason to worry, at least not due to actions by the Party. If other countries have problems, that is not the Party’s fault.

And also, the Party will take it from here, no need for foreign assistance. They’ll allow in some doctors, preferably WHO related, and they have asked both the US and EU for medical equipment and doctors’ uniforms, hazmat suits, that sort of thing, just so nobody asks any further questions: see, we do accept help! We’ll let you know if we need anything.

Other than that, the Party is in full control, thank you very much. And if Chinese people start protesting the failures of the Party so far, as they are, that is none of anyone else’s business. “We” have it under control”. Ask the WHO, they said so too.


If the Party is allowed to get away with this behavior aimed at self-preservation above anything else, including human lives of both Chinese and foreigners, something bad is sure to happen. Maybe not this time, maybe this one will fizzle out. But the next one, or the one after that, will not.

It is obvious how dangerous this is, putting the interests of the Party, or the economy, above the risk of spreading global pandemic. But is is also obvious why it happens. And it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen only in China. Though the country in its present state is a ideal breeding ground.

Flights are halted. Hundreds of millions will soon be in lockdown. Exports will plunge, because production will. Which will hit the west as much as China. Just so the Party can say it did what had to be done, and so it will stay in power. Xi Jinping knows his power depends on the economy, but he thinks he has what it takes to hold on to power even when the economy tanks.

He can simply declare force majeure, he can tell his people how much worse things would have been had he not decided to lock down everything.

We’ve been following the numbers of infections and fatalities now for 2 weeks or so, even as we know they don’t mean much, they’re just Party propaganda. The Party will release what it thinks it must, but no more. Perhaps we need other sources; these will come if and when things get out of hand. Not that we know they will.

Xi can claim today that he has control. He can say things are not too bad, but we don’t really know, he’s issuing the numbers. What we do know, and there’s the crux, is that he was 6 weeks late in starting to acknowledge the epidemic, in contacting the outside world, in acknowledging his mistakes, and in acknowledging that such mistakes are baked into the model that keeps him in power.

Phase 1 is complete denial, not a word. Phase 2 is damage control, massaging the numbers downward. Phase 3 is “close all the doors, not to worry, nothing to see here, we got this, no you can’t come in, too risky!”

But, yeah, praise him while you can. The only praise he cares about is from people just as clueless as he is anyway.

The Party is a highly effective vehicle for protecting its own interests and survival. For other things, perhaps not so much. Viruses can be quite deadly at times. Combine them with politics and the risk factor rises exponentially.

Tragedy assured. Just not every single time.



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Jan 292020

M.C. Escher Fluorescent sea 1933


It’s a little amusing, though that word may not fit the topic, to see how people react to the 2019-nCoV (Wuhan coronavirus) “epidemic” that appears to have started in the city of that name. It’s understandable that people compare the warnings about it to those about for instance SARS (also a coronavirus, so either call this one 2019-nCoV or “Wuhan coronavirus”), and conclude that since that episode was not so bad, neither will this one be, but that’s certainly not the definitive story.

If only because stating that the world is due for a large-scale epidemic, a pandemic, is not some scare-mongering exercise, it’s basic statistics and broadly recognized. The last really big one is over 100 years ago. The Spanish flu of 1917-1918 killed an estimated 50 million people, more than WWI which took place from 1914-1918, and saw an estimated 40 million fatalities.

(Un)predictability is key: Adolfo Garcia-Sastre, director of Global Health and Emerging Pathogens Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine in New York City says: “There is no good way to predict [when a flu pandemic will occur], but “this is something that happens every 10 to 40 years”. In essence, since a real flu pandemic hasn’t happened in 100 years, we’re overdue.

There are of course vast differences between today and 1918. But then again, these differences may balance each other out to an extent: on the one hand: 1) medical science has made enormous progress in the past 100 years. But on the other: 2) there are many more people, and they move around and come in contact with each other a lot more too.


Cross-sectional model of a coronavirus. Source:
Scientific Animations (CC BY-SA 4.0)


World population in 1918 was 1.8 billion; today it’s over 4 times that at 7.7 billion. Add increased mobility through planes, trains and automobiles -in the west and now China- and you will find the number of miles traveled and the number of people “met” per capita has probably gone up by a factor of 10 or more. Just what a virus wants: 10+ times more potential hosts.

The 2009 swine flu killed “only” 200,000 people. Not the “real thing”. SARS affected about 8,000 people and killed 774 in the early 2000s. Hardly even an epidemic, let alone a pandemic. MERS, another coronavirus, infected 186 people and with a death toll of 36. Small change in comparison.

But of course scientists are looking into the matter all the time. And, certainly compared to 1918, they have developed much more sophisticated models to do that, aided greatly by computing power. A simulation of a global pandemic that involves a coronavirus, developed late last year by scientist Eric Toner at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, showed that 65 million people might die within 18 months in such an event.

A more recent model was developed by a team led by Hong Kong University’s medicine dean Gabriel Leung:

The Coronavirus outbreak doubles every 6.2 days [..] That figure validates the forecast of top virologists who claim that Coronavirus is ten times worse than SARS. Hong Kong University is ranked a top 25 college globally and houses the world’s top 1% scientists according to Thomson Reuters. Based on the model used by HKU, up to 150,000 individuals could be affected by Coronavirus in the next three to four months on a daily basis.

Leung’s team said that it confirmed transmission from humans to humans is already occurring in virtually every major city in China. By April to May, Leung said Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chongqing are likely to see widespread infections of Coronavirus, [before the number of infections could begin to gradually decline in June or July, Leung said.

As many as 44,000 people could be infected in Wuhan alone, with only 25,000 likely to be showing symptoms at this time..] Specifically, Leung noted that due to the close ties between Chongqing and Wuhan, Chongqing could see nearly 150,000 people affected per day at its peak.

Chongqing is sometimes presumed to be the world’s most populous city, with 30 million inhabitants, though data are somewhat opaque.

SCMP adds:

Leung, who sits on Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor’s advisory committee on the coronavirus, called for drastic measures to curb the spread of the virus. “Substantial, draconian measures limiting population mobility should be taken immediately,” he said, calling for the cancellation of mass gatherings, along with school closures and work-from-home arrangements.

He would undoubtedly also cancel all flights to and from Wuhan, and perhaps even all of China, as British Airways has already done, and as other airlines will be forced to follow suit.

Yesterday was the first day that the 2019-nCoV virus had infected over 1,000 new patients. And that’s in official numbers, those are the confirmed ones for a disease with a 2-week incubation period and an R0 rate (how many people are infected by each positive person) of 2.5 to 4. It was also the first day that more new cases were reported outside of Hubei province than inside it.

Scores of new countries were added to the list of those with confirmed cases. There are now 19: China, United States, France, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Australia, Nepal, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia, Canada, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Germany and UAE (Finland was just added; now there’s 20). Moreover, several of these countries have confirmed human-to-human transmission.

Still, while Hong Kong University’s Gabriel Leung estimates the 2019-nCoV peak at late April-early May 2020, Chinese respiratory diseases expert Zhong Nanshan, echoed by Gao Fu, the director of the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, said the peak would be reached in 10 days.


Infection cycle of a coronavirus


The WHO is, as I speak, burying China in compliments for its efforts to control the disease. Which is fine, and likely more constructive than criticism, but we’ve all been able to see the footage of dead and dying people in the corridors of Wuhan hospitals. And we know China’s history on SARS reporting. Beijing is worried sick by now, but the CCP’s biggest worry will always remain power and control. The Hong Kong protests have only enforced that attitude.

But who are we to criticize China anyway? In our own countries, the main concern in the media is still about the economic effects of what may or may not become a pandemic. “It’s going to hurt global trade, it’s going to hurt our economy, woe, woe..” As if it’s such a disaster that for a few months fewer non-essential goods are schlepped halfway across the globe. That period is likely too short for us to realize than we would do good to produce at least essential goods closer to home. The main concern is money, not that 132 people have died and many more will soon. Those are our priorities.

For a bright light to hit home upside our heads that we would actually notice, that would make us take a look at ourselves, we would need a real bad pandemic. Or we will not learn that we should not need a pandemic to realize we should take care of ourselves, our own basic needs, and not let someone 10,000 miles away do that.

As for fewer airline bookings or Louis Vuitton or Apple sales, if that’s your priority, maybe you’re overdue a lesson no matter what. A lesson about what your society needs to survive, vs what are extras, luxuries, added benefits. We seem to have lost comprehension of that difference entirely.

Summary: no panic, but vigilance. Same as every other day. And not too much focus on money and profits. 2019-nCoV doesn’t care about those either. In 2020, with all the resources at our disposal, and with 1918 to guide us, we should be able to see these things coming from miles away, and not need any time to respond. It should be no more than flicking a switch.

Now it’s like: but where will our food come from, and our iPhones? We should have the answers to such questions ready at all times, or we have failed as societies. Maybe someone’s holding up a mirror to us.

A question I can’t resist is: Are we better prepared today than people were in 1918? And I can’t give you the answer. I know we should be with all the wealth and resources and available energy we’ve added, but I can’t.



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