This is an OZY Special Briefing, an extension of the Presidential Daily Brief. The Special Briefing tells you what you need to know about an important issue, individual or story that is making news. Each one serves up an interesting selection of facts, opinions, images and videos in order to catch you up and vault you ahead.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? “Basically, do not go to Wuhan.” That’s what a top Chinese health official said Wednesday about the epicenter of a new viral outbreak that’s infected more than 500, killed 17 and sparked global concern. A new strain of the originally animal-borne coronavirus, which can be spread from human to human and results in a pneumonia-like illness, has now been detected in countries across East Asia — and on Tuesday, in the United States. Today, the World Health Organization could declare it a global public health emergency.
Why does it matter? The current outbreak is dredging up memories of China’s deadly severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) virus, which killed hundreds in 2002-2003. But one key aspect might be different: The Middle Kingdom is piping up about the problem this time, allowing international authorities to act. While that’s no magic elixir for a virus experts say can quickly mutate, especially during an age of greater global movement, it’s still a crucial test for an otherwise hermetic ruling regime.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Bad memories. The quickly spreading coronavirus appears to have originated from a seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, a central Chinese transit hub of 11 million people. That’s eerily similar to how SARS (which is related to the coronavirus) first broke out before infecting more than 8,000 and killing some 800 across nearly three dozen countries in less than a year. Back then, the government drew global criticism for its slow reaction to the outbreak and its resulting cover-up, presumably in order to prevent a public panic and control the tide of information. At the time, it took three months for Beijing to notify the WHO.
Opening up? Besides urging people not to travel in or out of Wuhan, local officials have banned outbound tours, installed infrared thermometers at public transit stations and begun inspecting vehicles for live animals. In a social media post, one Communist party committee said anyone who failed to report infections “will be forever nailed to history’s pillar of shame.” Meanwhile, Chinese authorities quickly shared the virus’ genetic sequence with the WHO. Yet critics already claim the government wasn’t clear enough about its spread beyond Wuhan to major cities like Shanghai. Either way, acting quickly and transparently is key, since doing otherwise could “absolutely gnaw at the confidence and legitimacy of the whole regime,” King’s College professor Kerry Brown told The New York Times.
Travel frenzy. Compounding the problem is the approaching Lunar New Year holiday, which starts Friday, when hundreds of millions of travelers will criss-cross China (and the globe) in the world’s single largest annual migration. The Transport Ministry reported a 20 percent jump in train travel during the past 10 days from the same period last year. But with officials warning that mass movement will make it harder to contain the spread of the coronavirus, many might opt out of their travel plans. On the financial front, analysts say China’s travel and leisure industry could take a serious hit if the outbreak drags on: Back in 2003, for example, the sector posted negative growth for the first time in 10 years — strained under the economic weight of the SARS crisis.
Closing up shop. Experts say shuttering wildlife markets could be crucial to stopping the spread of the zoonotic (aka animal-to-human) virus. Keeping animals away from stressful or otherwise poor conditions could reduce their chances of getting sick; in the SARS crisis, many of the earliest cases were traced back to workers who handled contaminated wildlife. Besides, one expert told National Geographic, closing or dramatically reducing the number of wildlife markets would have “a win-win effect” by preserving species as well as stemming the spread of new viruses.
WHAT TO READ
China Faces Social Media Backlash With New Virus Outbreak, by Bloomberg News
“The Chinese government is treading a delicate line between maintaining stability and educating the public about the virus ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday that starts Friday.”
As Virus Spreads, Isolated Taiwan Risks Being a Loophole in War on Epidemics, by Jonathan Cheng and Chun Han Wong in The Wall Street Journal
“While Taiwanese officials broadly denounce all Chinese measures to isolate them diplomatically, they have zeroed in on Beijing’s efforts to keep Taiwan out of the WHO and its annual assembly meetings, saying such moves pose a public-health risk—particularly in times of disease outbreaks.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Could This Coronavirus Be Disease X? Everything You Need to Know About the Mystery Virus in China
“For some reasons that we don’t yet understand, the virus mutates and makes the leap from animals to humans.”
Watch on The Telegraph on YouTube:
How Dangerous Is China’s Wuhan Coronavirus?
“We have to be transparent in outbreak-kinds-of situations like this, so that we know where things are starting and where we need to put measures in place to make sure that they don’t spread further.“
Watch on DW News on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Extreme measures. Just when you thought North Korea couldn’t get any more insular, it has reportedly banned all international tourists as the coronavirus spreads through Asia. That’s despite tourism being one of the only sources of legitimate foreign cash there.