Stop the flights. Stop the boats. Close the borders. Why didn’t it all stop that COVID-19 infected the world?
COVID-19 has two properties that made containment almost impossible. It takes up to two weeks between the infection and the appearance of symptoms. And for part of that time, ignorant sufferers can be ignorant spreaders.
Some estimates assume a third of all cases.
This threw a wrench into the factories from the start.
The virus had spread by the time the first cases of strange new pneumonia were discovered at a fish market in Wuhan, China.
By the time 100 were treated in Chinese hospitals for acute respiratory syndrome, there were likely to be thousands of carriers in the general public.
Some would have thought they had a dose of the flu. Others hardly noticed any symptoms.
But each of them infected three others.
Wuhan, like most modern cities, was an important transportation hub.
It was well connected to the rest of China through extensive rail and road networks. The international airport could carry passengers anywhere in the world in 36 hours.
And everyone was preparing to visit friends and family for the Chinese New Year holidays. According to the mayor of Wuhan Zhou Xianwang at the time, around five million people left the city in January before the ban was imposed.
It was a perfect scenario for the spread of a highly contagious, largely invisible virus.
But Beijing’s reaction made it worse. Much worse.
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Meanwhile, Beijing was busy suppressing information. Doctors who discussed the subject were gagged or detained. Whistleblowers were suppressed. State-controlled media were both censored and instructed to repeat the party line.
This allowed the virus to make uncontrolled progress in the crucial days and weeks of the outbreak.
“The Chinese Communist Party’s willingness to maintain secrecy was heightened by President Xi Jinping’s desire to be perceived as a strong controller supported by a fortified Chinese Communist Party (CCP),” said ASPI analyst Brahma Chellaney.
But until January 21, Beijing changed its mindset. The outbreak was obvious. No amount of government censorship could hide that. Two days later, seven weeks after the virus was first discovered, Wuhan was banned.
“China has a history of ill-treatment, including SARS in 2002 and 2003,” wrote Shadi Hamid, an analyst with the Brookings International Affairs Institution. “But the negligence of Chinese leaders in December and January – well over a month after the first outbreak in Wuhan – far exceeds these botched reactions.” This allowed the virus to spread all over the world. “
Beijing is now trying to rewrite history. Attempts are being made to blame the origins of the virus on the United States itself.
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ONE STEP AHEAD
The five million people who came from Wuhan in January sowed the virus all over China. Despite the city’s closure, new outbreaks soon occurred.
Thousands had also flown out of the city to destinations around the world.
After a statistical evaluation of the New York Times900 traveled to New York City in January. Around 2,200 went to Sydney.
Even when the world was alerted in late January, COVID-19 slipped past the defense.
As carriers took up to 14 days to present symptoms, airport temperature tests were only partially effective. Some estimates assume that up to 85 percent of the cases were undetected.
These then set up new outbreaks at their destinations.
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Travel restrictions and bans were put in place as soon as governments understood what was happening.
But this closed the stable door after the viral horse was locked.
In addition, not all transportation companies came from Wuhan: many were unwittingly exposed elsewhere in China. Or Italy. Or Iran. Or South Korea.
It took a month, but in March it was obvious that a global pandemic was happening.
Clusters arose everywhere.
The only effect that international travel bans would have is to slow the spread of the virus for a while.
LOCKDOWNS NOT ENOUGH
“We really need to focus on finding those who are sick, who have the virus, and isolating them, finding their contacts, and isolating them,” Ryan told the BBC on Sunday evening.
Social distancing and isolation measures can slow the spread. But there remains a large pool of people who are susceptible to the disease.
“The danger right now with the barriers … If we don’t take strict public health measures now when these restrictions on movement and barriers are lifted, there is a risk that the disease will skyrocket,” he says. “Once we have suppressed the transmission, we have to go after the virus. We have to fight the virus.”
Ryan warned that while multiple vaccines were being developed, people would need to be “realistic” about their availability.
“We have to make sure it’s absolutely safe … we’ll talk for at least a year,” he said.
“The vaccines will come, but we have to get out and do what we have to do now.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer @ JamieSeidel