From the start, from the first outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the worst qualities of new strain of the Coronavirus called COVID-19 were revealed: it moved quickly, spread widely and often stealthily.
Those other famous Coronaviruses, SARS and MERS, were many times more lethal. Get SARS or MERS and it was life and death. But they were much harder to catch and slower to spread, and though both killed hundreds and frightened billions, they came and went pretty quickly.
COVID-19 couldn’t be more different. It’s acquisition and distribution has been so easy and fast it is testing the limits of tracking and isolating cases. The good news is that it kills relatively few of its victims, the really bad news is that COVID-19 can be contagious from infected people with no symptoms, and the symptoms can be slow to develop, multiplying and sustaining the silent spread.
Already the Wuhan outbreak has gone epidemic in China. Close to 80,000 cases are suspected or confirmed, more than 2600 people have died, more than died from SARS and MERS put together. There have been few COVID 19-related deaths outside China, but there are confirmed cases in more than two dozen countries, serious multi-death issues in South Korea, Italy and Iran where various domestic and international quarantines are in place.
At the World Health Organization there is an ongoing debate over whether to declare COVID 19 pandemic.
“It may not be an actual pandemic yet,” a world-class economist, Diane Swonk, told our guest Keith Johnson about a week ago, “but it’s an economic pandemic, global in scope and disrupting activity around the world.”
The potential damage from this economic pandemic, in terms of people being hurt, lives being disrupted could dwarf even the frighteningly fast spreading medical crisis.
Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. He has been at FP since 2013, after spending 15 years covering terrorism, energy, airlines, politics, foreign affairs, and the economy for the Wall Street Journal. He has reported from Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.