The first case of coronavirus in Wuhan, China, was reported Dec. 8. Since then, many have begun to wonder, “Is this the Big One?” Obviously, it is too soon to say. But if the virus continues to spread rapidly, the implications for international security and for the global economy could be staggering, and not only in terms of global public health.
The virus is spreading easily between humans and currently has a basic reproduction number of about 3.5 to 5.5, meaning each infected person is spreading the virus to at least three other people. The World Health Organization, however, currently thinks the reproduction number is between 1.4. to 2.5, or each infected person is spreading the virus to two other people. That’s because the virus can lie dormant for days and may be mutating to spread more easily. In truth, nobody knows right now exactly how damaging the virus will be.
As we write, there have been almost 100 deaths and well more than 2,000 infections. The cases are concentrated on mainland China, but the virus may take hold outside China — already, there are five confirmed cases in the United States and several more in France, Japan, Australia, and southeast Asia.
We Still Have Much to Learn About the Coronavirus
The death toll will likely lag the number who have the virus, and a full picture of the virus’s lethality is not yet known. Yet a death rate of even 5 percent would be staggering, if the virus spreads easily enough. The Spanish flu pandemic of 1919 infected about 500 million people and ended up killing 50 to 100 million, up to 5 percent of the Earth’s population at the time. It wasn’t the extremely young and old who were hardest hit, either. For some reason, young adults were incredibly susceptible to the Spanish flu.
Of course, much remains unknown about the coronavirus. Accordingly, we can’t be certain about its political and economic effects. Nonetheless, it is not too early to begin considering what those effects might be. But the coronavirus plague might not turn out to be a passing phenomenon like the avian flu, which left little mark on world affairs. Even China’s President Xi Jinping has admitted China is facing a “grave situation,” and officials in China are saying the virus will spread further before it is stopped.
Wuhan, a city of 11 million people — several million more people than New York City or London — and the trading hub in Hubei province where the virus first spread has been placed in a lockdown. Movement in 17 other Chinese cities has been restricted; travel curbs imposed by the Chinese government have affected more than 56 million people. By way of comparison, the population of Spain is less than 47 million.
Hospitals and doctors appear to be overwhelmed; the Chinese military reportedly dispatched 40 doctors to help badly stressed civilian medics. Videos of the afflicted regions of China are terrifying, depicting empty streets, people dropping from the disease, and hospitals overflowing with victims.
Role of Chinese Government Malfeasance or Incompetence
But there’s at least a chance China has been more than just unlucky — meaning official incompetence has worsened the crisis. Already, there are serious doubts about both the Chinese government’s transparency and its competence in handling the crisis.
According to Sophie Richardson, the China director at Human Rights Watch, the government’s response to the crisis thus far has raised pointed concerns. Richardson told the U.K.’s Daily Telegraph that authorities have harassed people for “spreading rumors,” even though many are worried about not getting accurate information from their government, and that Chinese health experts who would have been “best equipped to sound the alarm about the coronavirus early” had been detained or seen their research halted. Meanwhile, social media posts with updates on the outbreak are swiftly deleted.
These are, of course, likely responses from an insecure, repressive, and undemocratic regime such as China’s. The reaction of the Soviet government and bureaucracy to the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl is an ominous precedent, and Chinese citizens remember their government’s cover-up of the 2002-2004 SARS epidemic. The Chinese government suppressed information about the outbreak of SARS for four months, until 774 people had died.
Other yet unverified reports could prove catastrophic for the Chinese government if they turn out to be conclusive. There is evidence, reported by the Washington Times’ highly respected Bill Gertz, that Wuhan is the site of two laboratories that appear to be engaged in research into deadly viruses. These facilities could be part of a covert Chinese biological weapons program.
Some, including China hawk Kyle Bass, are even claiming a Chinese spy ring stole strains of the virus from Canada and shipped it back to the lab in Wuhan. In other words, China’s government may have been experimenting with the virus for biowarfare purposes, only for the experiment to backfire.
It’s reminiscent of the Tianjin tragedy, wherein government corruption and complacency led dangerous chemicals to be stored in a populated area. Chinese government officials quickly suggested the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan resulted from the sale of wild animals in a Wuhan seafood market. While many of the early cases had contact with the seafood market, however, others did not.
Potential Consequences of the Coronavirus
In light of our current knowledge, what consequences might flow from a coronavirus pandemic? For starters, the Chinese government could undermine credibility with its own people. If Chinese citizens come to believe their government is deceiving them or concealing vital information, their disillusionment could be extreme.
The same could occur if Chinese citizens come to believe their national bureaucracy and military have been incompetent in handling the crisis. Many Chinese doubt local communist officials but seem to support the national party and Xi Jinping. Could the Chinese people begin to doubt the entire system? In a democracy such as ours, citizens’ anger can be channeled into voting. But in a one-party dictatorship such as China, popular anger and disillusionment may turn to protest.
Furthermore, the loss of millions or possibly tens of millions of lives, even in a country with a population as vast as China’s, would cause severe economic damage. China’s regime has to earn its way by repeatedly proving it can direct the economy successfully. Because of this, the regime is more fragile than some of its admirers think. Its legitimacy, even its survival, depends upon bringing continuing growth and prosperity to the Chinese people.
Not communist ideology but the claim of managerial expertise justifies the Chinese government’s hold on its people. A severe business downturn, especially if caused by a government-worsened epidemic, would feed popular discontentment and could lead to instability in China.
Global Ramifications if the Disease Keeps Spreading
Then there is the outside world. If the coronavirus epidemic were to cause other countries millions of fatalities, attributable to the bad actions of the Chinese government, foreign governments and peoples would surely resent them.
The Chinese model that attracts admiration from part of the developing world would be deeply marred. The global economy, integrated with China — the world’s second-largest economy behind America — could contract. Even a lesser pandemic threatens growth. People may stay home and not buy or travel. Already, oil prices have fallen in anticipation of a reduced demand for jet fuel and the like.
Faced with a domestic political crisis, China might intensify domestic repression. Or the government might try to blame the epidemic on foreign governments, such as the United States or Japan.
Alternatively, of course, a deep crisis could produce necessary reforms in China — even if not regime change, then at least a more transparent and less repressive government. Surely, members of the Chinese Communist Party are chafing under President Xi and would welcome liberalization. The coronavirus epidemic might give them their opportunity. Indeed, who is to say a crisis for China might not encourage a spiritual awakening there?
It is, we repeat, far too soon to say. We can only hope this crisis, too, shall pass. But if it does not, the consequences for both China and the rest of the world could be momentous.