[Updated March 14, 2020] - When I first wrote this (March 5), there had been around 100,000 confirmed cases of Coronavirus worldwide, of which just over 3,300 have died. There is no doubt this outbreak of COVID-19 is a serious global health concern. Since then, these numbers have changed drastically and continue to change daily. The WHO has declared it a global pandemic and it is shaping up to be the biggest global health and economic disaster of our lifetime. I have completely updated this blog post in light of the latest developments.
My question now is this: Is it possible that the extreme measures employed to curb the virus, and the global hysteria surrounding this pandemic is adding unnecessary damage to a very bad situation?
Let's start with the basic facts. The novel Coronavirus is highly contagious, and far more deadly than seasonal flu. The reported death rate (known as the Case Fatality Rate of CFR) is about 1 in 27, or about 3.8%. The actual mortality rate may be much lower, because there are probably far more cases than the official, reported cases we know about. As a case study, the Diamond Princess cruise ship had an infection rate of 1 in 5, and a total mortality rate of about 1%. But even if the actual mortality rate of COVID-19 is only 1%, as some have estimated, there is no doubt that the ease and speed with which it spreads, and the high mortality rate (especially among people over 60), make this new Coronavirus a very dangerous virus and the biggest global health concern we have seen in our generation.
Governments around the world have slowly woken up to this reality, but in almost all cases their response has been a few weeks too late to prevent a massive surge of infections, resulting in thousands of people seeking help and needing hospitalization.
Now that almost every country is affected and governments are taking increasingly strong action, we are starting to see the devastating impact of this virus, not just on national health systems but on entire industries and the world economy.
How should we respond?
The global panic surrounding this virus is understandable but are we going too far? Or not far enough? It is very important that we take drastic steps to contain the spread of this virus and limit (or at least slow down) the impact on society. But global panic and blind hysteria can do more harm than good.
The drastic measures we have seen in an effort to stop the spread of this pandemic carry a huge cost. Nations have shut down completely. Economies have ground to a halt. Travel and tourism has been decimated. Stock markets around the world have crashed. The economic cost of our efforts to contain this virus has been extremely damaging, and we have not seen the worst of it yet.
We cannot make light of the deaths and potential deaths from COVID-19 or say that this is not a massive public health concern. This is not just a slightly more serious version of the flu, as many have claimed or hoped. We need to take this very seriously, but at the same time be aware that our response to Coronavirus can make the global crisis worse and do a lot of unnecessary damage, with devastating economic impact.
Is our current response worth the cost?
Not doing anything would be a disaster. The virus would infect millions. Unchecked, it has been estimated that up to 40% of the world's population could become infected before we start to acquire herd immunity. Hospitals would be completely overwhelmed and health care systems will collapse. This would make it likely that a higher percentage of people will die from the virus, perhaps as many as 3-5%. And many others would die from other causes because of the lack of medical care available. That could mean up to 100 million deaths around the world. Most of them over 60 years of age, but many younger people too. Possibly the worst pandemic the world has ever seen.
On the other end of the scale, we could lock down the planet. Shut down entire nations. Close borders. Ground planes and stop all transport. Forbid people to travel. Forbid any public gatherings or events. Close malls and schools and churches and universities. Force everyone to stay at home. This, unfortunately, is not a "what if" scenario. These things are happening, right now, in several countries. With devastating results. And the virus is still spreading!
The world economy is busy collapsing. Supply chains have been broken, resulting in critical shortages around the world, which may reach epic proportions in the months to come. Entire industries have been laid to waste. Stock markets have crashed. Projects have been put on hold. Companies are scaling down or closing. Nobody is spending. Nobody is hiring. People are being retrenched. Unemployment will skyrocket.
The global response to this pandemic has the best of intentions, but has so far had devastating economic consequences. It is a matter of time before we see the unintended consequences. The cost of our reaction to this pandemic will be massive, global economic devastation.
Are there any other options?
Is the drastic response we have seen the only way to contain this virus and avoid catastrophe? Or is catastrophe already unavoidable, in spite of (or because of) these measures? Is there not a more measured, responsible way to limit the spread and impact of this virus without shutting everything down and destroying the world economy?
I'm afraid I don't have the answer to that question. I can only hope that the world can return to "business as usual" in as short a time as possible. And that the suffering from the economic devastation we are witnessing will be limited.
I also hope that we have learned something from this pandemic. For example, that we were woefully unprepared for this. Perhaps, instead of storing up millions of dollars worth of arms and ammunition in anticipation of war, we would be better off building more hospitals and storing millions of N95 masks, ventilators and other critical medical equipment that will allow us to better respond to a global health emergency like this.
Perhaps if we spent less time and resources preparing to fight each other and more time and resources preparing to help each other, the world would be better equipped to defeat a foe like Coronavirus.
About the author
Onne Vegter is the managing director of Wild Wings Safaris. He has a deep love for Africa's people, wildlife and natural heritage. Onne has travelled to most of Africa's top safari destinations and his writing is based on years of personal experience in the safari industry. Follow him on Twitter at @OnneVegter.