Slider
Slider

|

Slider

OPINION | The cure for the Chinese flu

Editorials & Columns
Typography
  • Smaller Small Medium Big Bigger
  • Default Helvetica Segoe Georgia Times

WHEN most people get the flu, they don’t see a doctor. That’s why any measure of how many have been infected with the Wuhan virus will tend to be relatively misleading.

America’s biggest Chinatown is in New York City. More than a million Chinese tourists visit the city every year; dozens of locals likely return weekly from trips to see family and business associates in Wuhan. The Wuhan virus reportedly can take 14 days to incubate; according to Chinese reports, carriers have been identified who can spread the disease without appearing sick. If you are a New York resident, are you taking comfort that, as of Tuesday, no cases had been confirmed in the city? Of course not.

Once the immediate fire is out, debate will turn to China’s unprecedented social experiment. Did the order to stop travel out of Wuhan come too late? Officials quickly had to broaden the area covered — just five days after settling on Wuhan and its 11 million people they expanded the quarantine to cover a region of 50 million — so the evidence is strong that the initial decision was at least tardy. But can any inland city the size of Wuhan be effectively quarantined when 200 million Chinese now own private cars? Only an authoritarian government, it is said, would even try. But the alternative approach, as adopted during the SARS epidemic 17 years ago, of focusing on identifying and isolating individual carriers also plays to the authoritarian heavy hand. Under either approach, China’s Orwellian social credit system and its growing online and offline monitoring capabilities suggest new possibilities for contagion control in the future.

The world’s stake is not small. China is the planet’s premier incubator of new flu strains, blamed for the 1918-19 “Spanish” flu, 1957’s Asian flu, the Hong Kong flu of 1968, and the “Russian” flu of 1977. Yet the story is one of progress. China’s backyard agriculture, where ducks and pigs are raised in close proximity, was long considered a key culprit in generating new strains. With this year’s Wuhan outbreak and 2003’s SARS outbreak, suspicion has shifted to urban “wet” markets where affluent Chinese indulge an increasingly atavistic taste for wild and exotic animals slaughtered on the spot.

Notice that such issues with meat production don’t arise in developed countries. The reason, to oversimplify, is agribusiness. Mass production focuses on a single species at a single site; the product is usually frozen or refrigerated and delivered to the customer through a chain of sanitary intermediaries; the opportunity for cross-species infection is small; the opportunity for quality control and systematic inspection is great.

In a mixed blessing, such techniques also put small operators out of business, and that’s been happening in China. By one count, farms with more than 500 hogs accounted for 75 percent of pig production in 2015, tripling their share since 2008. Large-scale dairies have arrived in China. Backyard protein production is demonstrably fading. Whether Beijing can muster the will to ban the newish problem of urban wet markets is doubtful, but the Chinese people may take a hand here too. A succession of adulterated-food scandals have made food safety a top-of-mind concern. Demand is growing for trusted brands and more processed ingredients.

Foodies in the West look askance at such developments, but the fact remains: Americans can grab stuff off a store shelf and put it in our mouths with little fear it will kill us in the short run.

It might sound like pie-in-the-sky right now, but the day is likely coming when China’s industrializing food system won’t be a significant wild card in the ever-evolving flu puzzle that kills 650,000 annually, including 35,000 in the U.S. In the meantime, also good news is that most people catch the flu and recover without seeing a doctor, so the observed mortality rate from the latest Wuhan infection (it appears to be about 3 percent) is certainly overstated.

Americans likely face a bigger risk from fear of the disease than from the disease itself, which is why they should draw the right lesson from the recent past.

In 2014, politicians in New York, Illinois and California were accused of medically unnecessary theatrics when they insisted on a 21-day quarantine for doctors and nurses returning from treating an Ebola outbreak in West Africa. The critics missed the point: Seven million, two million and one million — that’s how many people each day ride the mass transit systems of New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively, each of which is tied to an international airport. Now imagine somebody throwing up or passing out in a crowded New York subway car, as happens at least 700 times a week, at a moment when locals are in a state of high anxiety about some mysterious new outbreak and hear on the news that their politicians are not making aggressive gestures to protect them.

This is why, for the U.S., managing the psychological contagion from Wuhan may turn out to be the most important part of the job.

November 2020 pssnewsletter

previous arrow
next arrow
Shadow
Slider

Read more articles

Visit our Facebook Page

previous arrow
next arrow
Shadow
Slider