On the evening of Dec. 30, a young doctor in the Chinese city of Wuhan sent a short text message to a group of colleagues. "Seven cases of SARS have been confirmed at the seafood market in Huanan," he wrote. SARS, the viral disease that broke out in November 2002, claimed 774 lives.
"It was clear to me that we were dealing with a public health issue," the doctor said.
The name of the doctor and the hospital where he works have not been made public. But the story that he told the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper has been shared tens of thousands of times online in China. At 1:30 a.m. on Dec. 31, the municipal health commission summoned the doctor and questioned him several times throughout the day.
Where did he get his information, officials wanted to know? Did he realize he was breaking the law? Did he understand that spreading that kind of information was a punishable offense? "Understood," he wrote on a form, signing his statement with his fingerprint.
But the doctor never got punished. Instead, he got sick.
"On Jan. 10, around noon, I began to cough. The next day, my fever rose. That was when I knew I was in trouble," he said. On Jan. 16, he started having trouble breathing. On Jan. 24, he was transferred to the intensive care unit. From there, he typed out his story on his phone on Jan. 27. He couldn't speak and could only breath with the help of a respirator.
The coronavirus, the viral disease the doctor had warned about at the end of December and which he ultimately contracted himself, has spread from the Chinese city of Wuhan around the world. As of Tuesday, Feb. 4, there have been more than 20,630 confirmed cases in 24 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). China has reported more than 420 deaths so far. That's more than during the SARS outbreak in 2002 and 2003, which claimed 349 lives in mainland China.
The epidemic is worrying scientists, politicians and entrepreneurs alike. Chinese markets reopened Monday after being closed since Jan. 23 for the Lunar New Year and stocks immediately plunged. The virus has also begun to change people's everyday lives, the way they do business and how they travel. The fear of new infections has made its way around the world. Sports events have been postponed. British Airways and Lufthansa were the first airlines to cancel all flights to China. Cathay Pacific stopped handing out pillows, blankets and magazines in its aircraft to prevent the virus from spreading. What's next?
China, the world's most populous country and its second-largest economy, is facing a "complicated and serious" crisis, according to a group of Chinese officials headed by Prime Minister Li Keqiang. The country exports more than $2.3 trillion worth of goods annually and is responsible for about one-third of global economic growth.
A street in Wuhan: As ground zero of the epidemic, what happens in the Chinese city could determine whether the virus can be contained or not.Foto: GETTY IMAGES
What if, now that the first airports have been closed, China also shutters its ports? This would disrupt countless supply chains around the world, both big and small. And what if, after the initial coverup and subsequent quarantine of cities with populations in the millions, the Chinese lose confidence in their government?
The epidemic has already shown just how vulnerable our interdependent 21st century economy really is. China boasts the world's largest manufacturing industry. Yet many of the assembly lines aren't running. The government extended the Lunar New Year holiday by a few days in an effort to combat the spread of the virus. Meanwhile, preschools, schools and universities remain closed indefinitely. This suggests that factories in China will also remain closed for the time being.
A Globalized Virus
Experts are divided on when the virus will reach its peak. China's best-known epidemiologist, Zhong Nanshan, has said he expects new infections to reach their high point in early February, whereas experts in Hong Kong and London say they think it will be closer to April or May. Manufacturers of everything from electronics to textiles are likely facing shutdowns of several weeks.
Tech giant Apple, which has a production facility in Wuhan, quickly began looking for alternate suppliers "to make up any expected production loss,” CEO Tim Cook said last week. The French carmaker PSA, which has several factories in Wuhan, is facing a similar situation.
China exports more than 80 percent of that which it produces -including industrial and consumer goods, raw materials and food – by sea. If the ports were closed, it would lead to a massive disruption of global trade comparable to a stop in oil deliveries from Saudi Arabia. To a certain extent, China has "swing capacity" in the manufacturing industry. An interruption in production could bring a large part of the global economy to a standstill, although this still seems a long way away.
Globalization has lifted millions of people in countries like China, Indonesia and Vietnam out of poverty. It has provided people in industrialized nations with cheap televisions and laptops not to mention clothing and textiles, yet at the same time, it makes the world more vulnerable to all sorts of disruption, from terrorist attacks to natural disasters – and epidemics.
A panel of experts from the World Bank and the WHO wrote of a "world at risk" when they examined the economic consequences of a serious global health emergency last year. A pandemic like the Spanish flu, which killed as many as 50 million people between 1918 and 1920, would depress global economic output today by around $3 trillion (2.7 trillion euros), the experts calculated. Even a comparatively mild epidemic could cause damages adding up to more than 2 percent of GDP. "The world is not prepared for a fast-moving, virulent respiratory pathogen pandemic," the report states.
Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang during a visit to Wuhan after the outbreak of the novel coronavirus: Fears of the virus are spreading around the world.Foto: STRINGER/ REUTERS
Chinese President Xi Jinping, has compared the virus to a "demon," thus stirring up one emotion that spreads even more quickly than the virus itself: fear. In Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore, hundreds of thousands of people have signed petitions demanding entry bans for Chinese. In France, people of Asian origin have taken to Twitter to complain about discrimination, using the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus ("I am not a virus"). Some people have even refused to be served by Asians in supermarkets. In France, there had been six confirmed cases as of Tuesday, Feb 4. In South Korea, there had been 15; in Malaysia, 10; and in Singapore, 18.
The story of the coronavirus is about more than just medicine and China. It is a lesson on the increasing interdependence – and the political, economic and social dimensions – of today's world. It is a story about the globalization of danger.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in central China, remains at the center of the crisis. For Christian Drosten, the director of the Institute of Virology at Berlin's Charité university hospital who also helped discover the SARS virus, one thing is certain: In Wuhan, the place where it all began and where new infections and deaths have been increasing from one day to the next, the coming weeks will show whether the new virus can be stopped – or whether the world will simply look on helplessly as the virus jumps around from country to country and continent to continent.
Drosten says the decisive factor in the fight against the new coronavirus won't be a few hundred additional doctors or a hospital that was built in just over a week, but residents' everyday behavior. "SARS could only be stopped in Hong Kong in 2003 because people consistently stayed home out of fear," he explains. If people stay away from one another, they can't spread their germs.
What epidemiologists refer to as "social distancing" – i.e. minimizing contact with other people, avoiding unnecessary walks or travel, working from home, etc. – is more effective than anything against dangerous new viruses, Drosten says. If the number of new infections in Wuhan were to decrease in the coming weeks, it would certainly be due to people's behavior there.
Weeks have passed since the outbreak of the virus and it's still not known where exactly it originated in Wuhan. One guess that gained wide traction – that the virus originated at the Huanan seafood market – is now being called into question again. "The virus was immediately and rapidly transmissible from person to person," Drosten says. "That’s why I could imagine it being an infected person rather than an animal that spread the virus at the market." The virus could have even originated at another market altogether and could have spread from there to the Huanan seafood market.
WHO head Adhanom Ghebreyesus and Chinese President Xi during a meeting in Beijing: It may sound counterintuitive, but the crisis actually provides a useful opportunity for the Chinese government.Foto: NAOHIKO HATTA / GETTY IMAGES
So far, the city's residents have strictly heeded the call to stay home. "People are only going outside to run errands that are absolutely necessary," says Han Li, 62, a resident of Hamburg who was surprised to learn on Jan. 23 that the city in which he was staying had been quarantined. Until last Saturday, he had been holed up in a hotel in the city center, waiting for the German government to fly him, his wife and around 90 other German citizens out of Wuhan.
In Wuhan, the government's transportation ban and curfew have been highly effective. The streets are all but deserted. On New Year's Eve, many residents could be seen and heard at their windows or on their balconies, singing the national anthem and shouting words of encouragement to one another. "Wuhan!" they yelled. And: "Jia you!" which literally means to "add oil" but is used as an expression of support. It's the same battle cry that protestors in Hong Kong have been using for months.
Last week, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus praised Chinese leaders for their discipline, though it has really been the medical professionals and residents of Wuhan and the 15 worst-hit cities in Hubei Province who have been the most disciplined.
"We appreciate the seriousness with which China is taking this outbreak, especially the commitment from top leadership," Tedros said during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He went on to say that he was "very encouraged and impressed by the president’s knowledge of the outbreak and his personal involvement in the response." And he responded to criticism of his lavish praise for the Chinese leader by insisting that he "would praise China again and again." Beijing's actions had "helped prevent the spread of coronavirus to other countries," Tedros said. He also noted that China had been proactive in alerting the German authorities after a woman infected with the disease had returned to China following a visit to Bavaria.
Xi had no trouble accepting the praise. Flanked by a floor-to-ceiling painting of a mountain landscape, Xi nodded approvingly as Tedros commended him for his engagement in fighting the virus. It was welcome reinforcement for Beijing. It may sound counterintuitive, but the crisis actually provides a useful opportunity for the Chinese government to make the case for its system of rule. As if to say, "You in the West may call our measures draconian. We call them efficient.”
In fact, what China is asking of its people would be difficult to imagine in any other country. For Europeans, it may be reminiscent of some blockbuster movie about a natural disaster. More than 50 million people are trapped in Hubei province. That's more than the entire population of Spain. Major cities including Beijing and Tianjin were quick to suspend long-distance bus services.
Travelers who returned from Wuhan were urged to quarantine themselves and report their body temperature to the authorities twice a day. In Beijing's subway stations, security guards in white full-body suits could be seen scanning every passenger with infrared thermometers.