Coronavirus 2019, COVID-2019, known on the Internet by many names, originated in Wuhan Province, the People's Republic of China (PRC) about 3 months ago. The first efforts in Wuhan were to contain the virus while also containing news about the virus, because every new flu-type virus has effects on both health and economies. If the economic impact is serious enough it can also have a political impact.
As of today (as I write this) there have been 2,700 Coronavirus deaths in China and 41 outside of China. The worldwide death-rate of those getting the disease is 2.3%, compared to 0.1% death-rate for those who get other types of flu. Furthermore, how the disease spreads is still uncertain, so how to protect one’s self is a question. We are warned to wear masks, wash hands, and avoid crowds. Antiseptic, surgical protection is impractical.
For the first two months the main emphasis has been on containment. Wuhan was put in quarantine, the entire province and anyone coming or going from there. The PRC government acted aggressively to build a large hospital in 10 days, to shut down businesses and travel, and to identify and isolate cases. On the one hand this strategy has worked to bring about a sharp dip in new cases in Wuhan. On the other hand the virus was not contained.
It has spread to several other countries. Thailand was the first country outside China to see confirmed cases, but South Korea is now in the lead. The news these last couple of days is about the virus spreading in Italy, from Milan, and clearly into Europe.
Apparently, epidemiologists are expecting the Coronavirus to spread around the world. They are working frantically to identify its origin, and they have not yet done so. Bats, again (poor beasts, never get a break), were thought to be at fault. That was just a rumor – maybe. But the medical strategy is first to decide how to deal with the inevitable spread, that is, how to protect people from getting the disease and how to treat them if they seem to have gotten it, and also to develop effective immunization programs, which will take years to perfect.
Meanwhile, the virus is just about the only news worth talking about. It absorbs attention to such an extent that other things matter less than they would otherwise. It is the top news story even in the USA where the Democrats are struggling to come to terms with Bernie Sanders’s ascendency as the candidate to enter the ring against Trump. But the virus’s impact on world economies, particularly in travel industries, caused the stock market in the USA alone, to lose 1.7 trillion dollars yesterday. That’s a stunning blow that simply means 2020 will NOT be a year of economic improvement. Economy always impacts politics.
Here in Chiang Mai, hotels are struggling to stay open, sites that rely on tourist traffic are empty and employees are beginning to panic, and even markets and malls are seeing 30% less business with the percentages rising. This comes on top of an already sluggish local economy due to depressed tourism caused by other things, including terrible air pollution and stiffer competition from other tourist destinations. Tourism is a fickle industry.
Our university cancelled a work camp yesterday, scheduled to bring a score of students from Japan as it has for 30 years. A hundred Chinese students are unable to come to begin work next week, and we don’t know when they will be able to come. This is a big disruption for them and for our university.
Nationwide, the virus is “one more thing,” but it is a big thing on top of everything else. Thailand’s economic picture is not as rosy as had been hoped. Several major companies are leaving. Chevrolet announced a couple of days ago that they are closing operations here in Thailand. The Prime Minister is dealing with a no-confidence motion this week, which he will probably survive, but his popularity, never very great, is declining over revelations that leak out about shocking financial deals, and now the dissolution of the third largest political party in Thailand. This has resulted in student protests on university campuses all over the country. Those protests may simply “blow off steam” since they are not spreading beyond university campuses. Exams are coming very soon. Student protests will end before they bring any change to the way the government operates. In fact, the virus affects even these things. If a large rally were to be held, say in the center of Bangkok, attendance would be smaller than otherwise because of the virus. Crowds are to be avoided.
Even here in our village, in a spur on the valley, back behind the mountain, everyone knows about the Coronavirus. They are thinking about it all the time. They are keeping track of where “cases” (confirmed, unconfirmed, suspected, and rumored) are being talked about. The news sources are public and social media. The virus is viral.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.