*breathes deeply* FFFFFUUUUUUUU- massive, MASSIVE plot twist in Kengan Omega! Ah yes, coronavirus too. *pulls out giant foam finger* Singapore #1 (outside of China and Cruise Ship)! Oh, this is one ranking list we don't wanna top for once?
The coronavirus has finally been officially christened as COVID-19 by the WHO a few days ago, superseding previous popular descriptors such as the Wuhan/China Flu. This omission of location/ethnicity-specific terms was intended to fend off unwarranted stigma, as was the case for the Spanish flu, which got named as such due to the Spaniards being honest enough to report it (but as far as nationality-based associations go, it could probably have been worse). Taiwan for one will be retaining the Wuhan naming, but given they're being shut out of the WHO due to PRC pressure, it's easy to see why.
Dumping a bunch of resources, before continuing:
As to what's known about the virus thus far (information subject to change; I'm no authority on it, and there have been plenty of walkbacks no thanks to the rush to publish in medical journals, with Science for example critiquing no less than NEJM for a letter that posited asymptomatic transmission... which however now appears very possible, according to the US CDC director): it's pretty contagious, with the WHO estimating that each infected person will spread it to something like 1.4 to 2.5 additional people (R0=1.4-2.5), with CAS researchers having the R0 as high as 4.08. The mortality rate (from destruction of lung tissue) has been about 2% within China, which doesn't seem too bad until one considers that this is orders of magnitude above that for the common flu (~0.05%). The death toll has long surpassed that of SARS from 2003; further, it can be transmitted as an aerosol, through feces, and maybe even farts and the Emperor knows what else.
In short, COVID-19 looks like very, very bad news.
But it won't result in a zombie apocalypse, or so the Malaysian government has reassured, so we have that going for us.
Diagnosis-wise, production of test kits seems to be ramping up (if of variable accuracy; A*Star's appear reliable though, and they've shipped a bunch to China), with accompanying improvements in detection speed. However, despite optimistic reports such as that from Thailand on combining flu and HIV medications for treatment, and the rather unorthodox recommendation of cow dung lotion from a Hindu swami, there is as yet no recognized cure. Vaccine development is likely to take months or years - time that the world in general, and China in particular, might not have.
Ominous splatter there...
(Source: gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com [16 Feb 2020])
Over to the epicenter of the Bad News Breakout, it's not looking mighty good. The latest tally has over 68,000 confirmed cases in China, with over 1,600 deaths, and that's after wielding the directed power of the behemoth uniparty state, and enacting quite draconian measures.
The more-benign side of China's production capabilities was on display in their rapid conversion of an exhibition centre and construction of the thousand-bed Huoshenshan facility, which was raised in just ten days using prefab structures; so the rooms aren't the cheeriest, and there remain some minor defects, but how many other nations could have managed such a feat of coordination at short notice?
The darker side of China's repressive habits however came to the fore as the spread of COVID-19 showed few signs of abating, and large population centres were mercilessly quarantined, one after the other. Before the Chinese New Year, eight cities close by Wuhan, comprising some 23 million people, had already come under curfew and lockdown. By the seventh of February, the quarantine had been extended to Guangzhou and elsewhere, for a total of about 700 million souls by today, or 10% of the entire world population/two Great Americas.
In perhaps the surest sign of how serious the threat was, the Chinese Communist Party actually caved to the Hong Kong protestors on closing all crossings to the mainland after being faced with a mass strike by hospital workers, despite the obvious symbolism of separation inherent in that act. Of course, given that Guangzhou is literally on Hong Kong's doorstep, and Hong Kong had been near the top of the transmission charts moreover with a first reported death, this was probably the sensible path to take, disregarding the politics of it all.
Dispell popo with this one weird trick!
Speaking of quarantine, the mainland definitely isn't playing around - there have been multiple attested reports of citizens being confined to their own apartments, with the aid of metal bars and heavy chains. The official stance on what to do if there's a fire appears to be to call one's designated contact, and hope that they arrive before it's too late; such measures haven't been good for the mental health of some residents, at least one of whom has started his own fire, alongside heartrending tragedies such as a disabled teenager starving after being left behind. Happily, most seem to be coping okay, with the more productive taking classes, running marathons and watching free "special" high-definition videos (one of the measures also taken by cruise lines), while being cooped up indoors.
These punitive policies have only increased in severity, what with banknotes getting in on the quarantine (and not the American civil forfeiture way), cough medicine being withheld to flush out recalcitrant isolation ward dodgers, and the ultimate late stage socialism penalty of death for breaking curfews, as also implemented in Best Korea. The sad realization however remains that almost all of this suffering was for the best, in an epidemiological sense. What other major country could have effectively enacted such a comprehensive lockdown? In Great America and other mostly-liberal democracies, you'd have a buncha Karens going muh rights, clearly I can't be infected and I wanna speak to your manager and/or I sue, because freedom. One shudders to imagine the absolute state of India or Africa if the virus gets there, and that's before the ongoing locust plague in the latter. For other places such as Indonesia and the Philippines, there seems a wilful refusal by the authorities to even consider that they might be involved, despite their many travel links with China. Can't have it if you don't look too hard for it, though not all of their citizens are remaining convinced.
There are indeed some very good economic reasons to ignore the threat, even in China where the virus is apparently dropping people on the streets. The work stoppage has essentially ground their markets and industry to a halt, with Paramount Leader Xi (fresh out of a slightly-suspicious hibernation) faced with an unpalatable choice: maintain the total lockdown, and have an already-vulnerable economy crater and hasten the departure of manufacturing, or resume normal business, risk the gradually-snowballing virus spreading out of all control, and eat perhaps a few percent loss of the population. They have apparently decided on the latter, if with the very-understandable concession of requesting flexibility on the fulfilment of their Phase 1 trade deal terms with Great America, while again banning selling and injecting huge liquidity into the moribund stock market. Myself, I'm pretty eager to find out what the massaged GDP numbers will be (then again, it might be considered that nations such as Germany and us truly have just avoided recession with extremely-convenient 0.1% growth rates, so take it as you will)
First win the War on Cold, *then* resume Cold War II
[N.B. That's if the debt situation and possible austerity can be resolved]
Amongst all the morbid fascination and undercurrent of mounting disquiet lies a lingering concern: can China be trusted? After all, there seemed to have been a fair chance that all this could have been nipped in the bud, had the Wuhan local authorities simply been more forthcoming at the outset. Instead, with over a third of China mothballed, and numerous towns and villages very sensibly BUILDING THE WALLS internally, the Foreign Minister somehow kept on admonishing other countries for enforcing travel bans, even warning that it would hurt goodwill and cooperation in the future; well, not as if all those smart students aren't hacking the system with third-party transits to get where they want to, anyway.
But let's trace the cover-up from the beginning. Like Singapore, China has instituted POFMA-type laws that purport to combat "fake news" through hefty penalties - up to seven years in prison, in the case of China. Such laws were applied against medical personnel who discussed COVID-19 abnormalities in a WeChat group, with eight of them arrested for misinformation because there were obviously zero concerning cases, comrade, and sure as day follows night, zero cases got reported. Anyway, one of the admonished doctors would catch the officially-nonexistent virus, and the doctor's death would spark a seldom-seen level of fury at the CCP, who had to transition from mass-banning WeChat accounts, to mass-banning Weibo hashtags demanding freedom of speech. A number of brave and principled journalists have attempted to provide on-the-ground updates, and have quite predictably gone entirely missing.
Of course, in an era of ubiquitous smartphones and free VPNs, an information quarantine towards controlling the narrative was never gonna work, and a deluge of data and video would continue pouring out of Wuhan and greater China. Some of it was merely reasonable speculation: if COVID-19 was "merely" another SARS/MERS/H1N1 (it's not), why are the quarantine measures on another scale altogether? Did the CCP know something the public wasn't supposed to know about the virus from the beginning, and are mostly out to save their own necks?
Despite the powers that be censoring material on WeChat, Weibo & Toutiao as quickly as they could while running the usual disinformation playbook, there were simply too many alternative channels to police, with plenty of authentic-seeming video clips making it to Youtube and Twitter - and not a few of open discontent at the government. When there's broad evidence of bodybag stockpiles, entire communities being abandoned to their fate and crematoriums working at a rate far above that expected from official death tolls, people have got to expect that something's up, even if there's some exaggeration mixed in.
Exactly as projected!
And on the official transmission & mortality numbers. The CCP's relation with statistics has long been kinda functional - the GDP aside (famously disbelieved by their own Premier), what is one to make of a province of 80 million people claiming a poverty rate of 17? No, not 17%, seventeen people (to be fair, Singapore has long refused to even propose a figure, while the response for pretty basic employment statistics had been stonewalled by a minister's motherhood statement once again, just last month). Now, it's easy to understand why a country might want to fudge the numbers - with all the suffering that comes with a recession, finding a way to drop the minus sign seems the proper thing to do - but would it hurt them to at least try to make it believable? Roughly 50 deaths from the flu annually, from a population of over a billion? Why not just go full Best Korea and report a big, fat, zero then?
It didn't take much scrutiny for various dataphiles to sense that China's official COVID-19 numbers were far too neat, and a talented Redditor soon found a predictive near-perfect fit for the number of confirmed cases, which moreover seemed immune to policy impacts. This quite remarkable lack of noise was confirmed by professional statisticians, with disease modellers and supposed insiders positing that the true numbers could be at least ten times higher, as supposedly briefly leaked by Tencent. The kindest explanation, then, would be that the too-regular figures arose from a lack of test kits and non-standard cause of death definitions, alongside internal political jostling.
Internationally, the WHO has been perhaps curiously pliant on accepting that China has it all under control, even as the CCP's fiddling with definitions against WHO's own guidelines, while doubling down on silencing whistleblowers. Of course, it's not like the WHO has the heft to get China to do anything the CCP doesn't want to happen, and it was left to America - thankfully under GEOTUS's impeccable leadership - to flat out accuse them of lying. Nonetheless, America has pledged US$100 million towards China's good fight, and China is finally allowing (maybe) an international team in, after weeks of refusing help and driving in circles. Given their dawdling here, it's hardly a surprise that the WHO is next on TRUMP's chopping board.
The refusal to admit outside observers and general censorship throughout has only fed the many conspiracy theories floating about, and the most popular by far is that COVID-19's an engineered bioweapon, with a Harvard epidemiologist more or less going "I'm not sayin' that it is, but this stuff ain't natural". On this, the main driver was the discovery of a Level 4 virology lab (a similar one coincidentally featured in a Dean Koontz thriller), located not twenty miles from the wet market getting blamed for the spread without actual evidence.
The bioweapons theory has been lent some credibility from being investigated by the White House, a week after a U.S. senator pointed out that many of the original cases, including the supposed Patient Zero, had no contact with the wet market. Admittedly, this sounds somewhat circumstantial, but there have been no lack of tasty indicators cropping up, such as the ACE2 receptor-based viruses being messed about on bats by the Wuhan Institute of Virology back in 2014, an implicated Canandian scientist getting offed in Africa, and said lab suddenly coming under PLA control. Adding fire to the fuel, a paper from the South China University of Technology has just raised the possibility of the virus escaping from another nearby research facility. Brave lads.
It starts to get extremely messy when we get into the motives, all the more with the spectre of Unit 731 hanging over China, coupled with hints that COVID-19 might be particularly deadly to Asian males (this typically vehemently explained away by correlations with smoking). Proponents of China's mischief have posited the creation of an intentional pandemic for which only they hold the cure towards gaining power, or more cynically for use against Hong Kong/Taiwan and/or the unproductive elderly.
China has expectedly disavowed any such biowarfare objectives, and their apologists have (not entirely without foundation) pointed the finger at the CIA, for spreading it with the aim of destroying China's economy in the build-up to Cold War II (which, truthfully, isn't exactly outside the ballpark of CIA nastiness). Russia, recognizing major troll lulz to be had, has thrown their weight behind China on this one. Either way, I'm suspecting it won't matter by the time the truth emerges.
As to how it's affected Singapore, that'll be for the next post...
[N.B. The Sabaton cover]
For a hill men would kill, why? They do not know
Stiffened wounds test their pride
Men on fire, still alive through the raging glow
Gone insane from the pain that they surely know
Next: SG VS COVID
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