In the panic over coronavirus in Britain, we seem to have forgotten about China. There is a logic to that, of course. The argument goes that British and European cases are far closer to home. But if we were just a little more aware of what has been going on in China over the past few weeks we might be a little less-minded to panic.
In China, the epidemic is not over, but it is in very sharp decline. In the worst week – the second week of February – more than 3,000 people a day were being infected in a seemingly exponential upwards curve. But then the number of infections peaked and started to fall just as quickly as they rose. On Sunday, just 46 new cases of coronavirus were identified in the whole of China – fewer than in Britain for the first time. If you look at the cumulative infection rate, China is no longer the worst-affected country: South Korea, Italy and Iran all have more cases per capita.
There are three possibilities. Firstly, either China is failing to report cases to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and is in effect fibbing about the extent of the outbreak.
Secondly, Chinese efforts to stem the epidemic, by closing cities and isolating people, have been stunningly successful or, thirdly, the disease is fading there of its own accord. To deal with the first of these, any statistics coming out of China must, of course, be read with a degree of scepticism – the country is not a democracy and we know what awaits those who stand up to the Communist regime. There were initial efforts to silence whistleblowers who identified the novel disease. On the other hand, China clearly was reporting surging cases of coronavirus to the WHO throughout January and February, so why should it suddenly have started suppressing them?
As for possibilities two and three, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising if China had succeeded in suppressing the epidemic: the measures taken have been drastic. Whole cities have been quarantined, public transport has been closed down, citizens forced into isolation whether they have the disease or not. The opportunities for the virus to spread have been seriously curtailed. But, on the other hand, might the epidemic have naturally run its course regardless of the intense efforts to fight it? After all, Sars and avian flu didn’t get very far, either – they peaked way before many feared they would.
There is a good reason to wonder whether there is a natural element to the decline of Covid-19 in China. We know that other viral illnesses such as flu tend to fall back when spring arrives, with viruses less able to survive outside the human body as the temperature rises. Hubei province, the seat of the disease, is in the centre of the country where spring arrives a little ahead of when it does in Britain. Daytime temperatures in recent days have been around 14 degrees celsius, several degrees higher than in Britain or in Lombardy, where the Italian outbreak is concentrated. It is nine degrees in Milan this afternoon and 11 degrees in Venice, falling to six degree celsius in Bolzano. It might be that coronavirus is simply responding to ordinary seasonal decline.
Either way, the Chinese experience is in sharp contrast to the panic being witnessed around the rest of the world. We are still being fed worst-case scenarios where 80 per cent of Britons catch the disease and 100,000 of us die from it. There is nothing in the Chinese experience to suggest this is remotely likely. In Hubei, only 20 per cent of the population caught the disease – and for the moment it seems unlikely that the total Chinese death toll will rise a lot further beyond the 3,100 who have so far succumbed. The question is, though, how much of the decline in China is due to drastic containment measures and how much is due to the natural limitations of this virus?