The brand new coronavirus: how ought to the world reply? | The Economist

published on July 3, 2020

The covid-19 virus is rapidly spreading

Europe’s open borders are closing

Much of America shutting down

Its deadly effects are being felt around the world

At least 565 people are dead

One hospital reportedly receiving a new patient every five minutes

And the global economy is crashing

Financial panic rocked world markets again today

I think it’s clear we’re going into a recession

It’s become clear only in the last few days

exactly the scale of the challenge that the world now faces with this virus

Governments are taking unprecedented steps to monitor

and contain the highly contagious disease—and save lives

We have to get this problem fixed

Without drastic measures it would overwhelm any health system in the world

But what are the best strategies to prevent the disease from spreading?

And what can the world learn from China, Singapore and South Korea

some of the first countries that were forced to react to this pandemic

Covid-19 was first detected in China

And despite early reluctance to admit to the outbreak

the country has shown that it is possible to halt the spread of the virus

by putting in place extreme measures

Never in history had a country taken such severe measures

and applied them so rigorously and even thuggishly

where they felt necessary in order

to try and stop the spread of a new disease

The Chinese government put 60m people living in Hubei province

on lockdown for nearly two months

as well as introducing other measures

It appears to have worked

China has had more coronavirus cases than any other country

But following the lockdown, the number of new infections has been falling

It’s gone from thousands of new cases per day in February

to just a handful of new cases each day in mid-March

I think that actually it’s kind of shown what’s possible and set a new norm

China managed to suppress coronavirus

The latest research from scientists at Imperial College London

a British university, suggests that other countries may benefit

from a similarly drastic approach

They predicted how two different strategies to fight covid-19

might pan out in America and in Britain

One is what they call mitigation

which is to try and lower the intensity of the outbreak

at its most extreme in order to cut deaths

and to help health services cope with it

Mitigation focuses on the ill and vulnerable

isloating them at home to try and stop the spread

Britain has around eight critical-care beds for every 100,000 people

If nothing was done to curb coronavirus

demand for critical care would outstrip capacity by 30 times

The most successful mitigation strategies could flatten the curve dramatically

reducing peak demand by two thirds

But the system would still be overwhelmed eight times over

And many people would still die

Researchers from Imperial College say a suppression approach

like that seen in China, would be more likely to save lives

Suppression, where you try and squash the disease down

so that it actually temporarily dies out in the population

And that you need stronger social distancing

and you need to sustain it for longer

Suppression imposes social distancing on whole populations

not just those with symptoms, and may also require

school closures for up to five months

Modelling suggests it can keep demand for critical care

under maximum capacity

meaning doctors would be able to treat

all of the most seriously ill patients, saving lives

But as soon as these measures are lifted

the virus can quickly return, overwhelming health systems

That’s because people keeping away from each other

means they don’t catch the disease and so don’t develop

the immunity that comes with fighting it

So, this is a very sobering assessment

It’s obviously a model but it’s the best information we have

and it’s the best basis for thinking

about the progress of this disease

All eyes will be on China

to see whether it can stop the virus from coming back in a second wave

as it lifts its restrictions

But one thing has already become clear from China

the economic cost of suppression is very high

If you look at the figures this week coming out of China

about the economic consequences

they’ve been several times worse than most forecasts

Retail sales have gone down 20%

They were expected to go down about 4%

Fixed-asset investment has gone down 24%

That’s many times more than people were expecting

This presents the world with a real dilemma

It’s going to be hard to deal with

and it’s going to be even more costly to deal with

And how do you begin to balance and reconcile

those two very, very difficult things?

Despite the serious economic consequences

many countries are opting for suppression policies in order to save lives

A day of sombre language

heralding state interventions unprecedented in modern peacetime

The advice was clear, a request to the public to

do something difficult, disruptive, draconian

France is just hours away from a nationwide lockdown

But must measures be as extreme as those taken in China?

One South-East Asian country has, so far, been a role-model

for how to suppress the virus early

The number of new cases per day in Singapore has been very low

The country has had fewer than 350 confirmed coronavirus cases in total

far less than would be expected given its close links with China

And so far no one in the country has died from the virus

It’s done it by very, very clear messaging

Here in Singapore we have all along taken covid-19

with the utmost seriousness

The advice that Singapore has given its citizens

it was upfront that this was a big threat, that it was going to be difficult

And these are the measures that people needed to do

We have to be mentally prepared for the number

of infected cases in Singapore to go up

Where you see, for instance, I have to say, regrettably in the United States

very mixed messaging, the undermining of officials

the confused, contradictory messages coming out of the White House

That doesn’t help

It may now be too late for many countries

to prevent the virus from taking hold

But governments could learn from South Korea

where coronavirus infected more than 800 people per day at its peak

There was a moment at this when it looked as if South Korea

was in real trouble because the disease got away from them

All sorts of cases started popping up unexpectedly

Yet its government managed to suppress the disease through

a national programme of testing

coupled with aggressive case tracking and isolation

It was highly effective at reducing infection rates

South Korea had a clear sense of where the disease was

What measures to take

And that has helped it isolate people and to shut down this disease

South Korea has tested around 310,000 people for coronavirus

Apart from China, other countries have lagged far behind

despite pleas from the World Health Organisation

You cannot fight a fire blindfolded

We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test

As the pandemic develops, testing could be key to identifying

who is safe to be in public—including those who have already had the virus

and who should be in isolation

The testing is going to have to change in future

The tests that are being used at the moment

which detect fragments of genetic material from the virus

in people’s bodies isn’t a very good test for those

who have recovered from the disease because

that material might have disappeared

Instead, you need to look for antibodies to the disease in people’s blood

And these are the tests that you need to start doing at a high level

so you can identify the population that is immune

China, Singapore and South Korea have provided valuable lessons

for the rest of the world

They have proved that suppression in the short-term can be effective

But until a vaccine is developed

which will take some months at the very least

strict measures will remain in place

It will be so demanding and demoralising

I think that society’s willingness to go through this

again and again and again, which is what the modelling suggests

is required if you’re going to suppress the disease altogether

I don’t think people will tolerate that

Governments have to give people hope and opportunity

to be able for lives to return to normal

And they need to find ways to get money to businesses

so that they don’t all collapse and

the economy isn’t really severely harmed by the disease

That’s a very tall order

And even with so much uncertainty about the coronavirus

policymakes are going to have to think and act

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