Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Wuhan Ban

By now you probably know that the Chinese authorities have taken drastic measures to isolate Wuhan and other cities, shutting down all transportation services from the city. They have also started building hospitals to quarantine infected people. The U.S. is evacuating its diplomats from Wuhan, and offering to evacuate other Americans who want to leave China. No doubt similar measures will be taken elsewhere in China and in other countries where the virus appears. The economic cost of these measures will be at least many tens of billions of dollars, probably in the hundreds of billions. And of course isolation and quarantine have public health costs of their own, and may cause death and disease themselves.

So should we all panic? If they are taking such extreme and costly measures this must be a really dangerous situation, right? Well, I dunno about that. As the latest update from CDC makes clear, we really don't know how virulent this virus is. Generally speaking, coronaviruses are among the innumerable viruses that cause what we call the common cold. We take it for granted that these viruses circulate all the time, and sometimes people get colds. Rarely, colds lead to pneumonia and even more rarely, pneumonia leads to death, usually among people who are already debilitated and mostly that means very old people. That's commonly how a long life ends. It's a fact of life that we accept.

So why all the hoopla about what may just be another of 100 viruses that cause colds? Well, the problem is that we don't really know. Novel pathogens are concerning because people don't have immunity to them, so they might cause particularly serious problems. That's what happened to the indigenous population of North America when they suddenly encountered diseases that Europeans had been living with for centuries. They're also concerning because we just don't know. Maybe this is generally a lot worse than the commonest of colds, and maybe it isn't. So the Chinese don't want the worst to happen, and they don't want to be blamed for not doing enough if it does. On the other hand, maybe the only real disaster will turn out to be the response.

I tend to be on the side of more conservative reaction to outbreaks. The 2010 flu pandemic hoax -- and that's what it was -- is a case in point. We had what turned out actually to be a comparatively mild flu season around the world, but the panicked overreaction was immeasurably costly and damaging. But I wouldn't want to be the person responsible for underreacting either. So that's where we find ourselves. 

No comments: