There’s been a lot of talk about the place I live in the news lately — some of it misleading, some of it just plain false. I thought I’d write in to my hometown paper and provide a little context.
In Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, tens of thousands developed a pneumonia-like illness caused by a highly infectious and hitherto unknown type of coronavirus. Thousands have died and the contagion has reached dozens of countries, causing panic and a variety of disease prevention measures. For those in the United States, where cases number in the low thousands but grow every day, an uncoordinated response has led to massive crowds at grocery stores and widespread confusion. Some are dismissing this as no cause for concern, or otherwise going about their day as usual.
Let me tell you straight out: That is an awful idea. Abject terror doesn’t help anyone, but the coronavirus must be taken seriously. If left unchecked, this little germ has the potential to double the number of infected every 6 days. You don’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to know that’s bad news.
Fortunately there is a place taking it seriously, and the world can learn from its example.
I’m talking about China, where I’ve lived and worked for over two years. Once the severity of the situation here became clear, the response was immediate and far-reaching. Cities and provinces were locked down, anyone demonstrating symptoms like fever or a dry cough was shuffled through a comprehensive testing regime, and a multi-layered system of quarantine separated out severe, confirmed and suspected patients. New hospital facilities were built in days to house the sick, and sports stadiums and schools were repurposed to house milder cases.
This worked like a charm. In the last month new infections have plummeted, and the World Health Organization credited this miraculous reversal to China’s policies in a report from a team of experts who visited Wuhan and other areas. In the past week, new cases have numbered below 20 across the entire country.
Even so, I count myself lucky — Beijing is many miles north of Hubei, and the number of cases in this city of 22 million people never went above 450, with all recent infections imported from other countries. Though other areas were hit harder, the whole nation appears to be in recovery at the moment. You can almost hear the sighs of relief.
That speaks to the effectiveness of the response on a broader level. But on a smaller scale, we were able to weather the crisis precisely because when the gravity of the threat was undeniable, we acted accordingly. By the end of January the streets were empty. People rarely went out except to buy essential supplies, which in my experience were available throughout the worst of the epidemic. When we did leave, we wore masks. I saw no scenes of apocalypse, no runs on toilet paper, but an understanding of how contagious this virus is and how much total vigilance matters.
This sense of collective responsibility is sorely needed now, as US institutions lag behind the disease’s spread and economics takes precedent over public health. If governments won’t do the right thing and keep populations indoors long enough to choke out the virus, it’s up to ordinary people to pick up the slack. I promise, you can forego trips to the movies or the bar for a little while. There is ample entertainment right at your fingertips in this modern age, when new TV shows outnumber the trees left in the Amazon.
Of course some don’t have that luxury. They depend on their paychecks to cover the bills and don’t make enough to save for a rainy day, much less a pandemic.
Again, this is an institutional failure. A nationwide freeze on rent, mortgages, utility bills and evictions — or giving out cash so everyone can self-quarantine without worrying about the cost — should be a no-brainer. Virus carriers going to work could lead to millions of cases and who knows how many fatalities. This is doubly important since people can spread the virus before exhibiting any symptoms, and triply important since a lack of testing infrastructure means there’s no way to trace the infected or their contacts the way China did.
Whatever the people in charge end up doing, as someone who’s been through this I implore you: Stay home unless it’s absolutely necessary.
I’d say “unless it’s a matter of life and death,” but it quite literally already is.