The Covid Sonata
Last month I wrote about the orchestrated campaign of disinformation about China’s role in relation to the Covid-19 epidemic. Here I review some of the recent developments.
When what we now know as Covid-19 was first recognised as a problem in late December 2019, all that was known was that there were several patients suffering from severe pneumonia with unfamiliar symptoms.
The doctors called heroes and whistle-blowers for spreading rumours knew even less, as they were sharing a wrong diagnosis of SARS.
We have come a long way since then, even though there is probably more unknown than known about the disease and the virus that causes it.
Early studies of the epidemic found most of the early patients worked in or visited the markets in Wuhan, the so-called ‘wet markets’ of anti-Chinese psy-war. This prompted speculation about the markets as source for the epidemic, though it was unlikely as over a quarter of those patients had no connection with the markets.
At first it was uncertain whether the virus was communicable among humans. The first sign of this came from families, although that could have been due to exposure to the same unknown animal source. Then medical workers acquired the disease and it became apparent that they were infected by patients. It was then thought that the disease was human transmissible with prolonged close contact.
Gradually, it became recognised that the disease could spread very rapidly, that people were infectious long before showing symptoms, and eventually, that a majority of carriers had mild or no symptoms. Recently, some experts proposed that most carriers do not pass on the virus, and that transmission is mostly by a small number of carriers who infect many people. It is also suspected that these super-spreaders involve transmission via aerosols that travel over a wide area and remain airborne for maybe a couple of hours, compared to the larger droplets that fall quickly to the ground, that are the basis for the familiar two metre or six foot distancing guidelines. If this is confirmed the implications for future public health measures are enormous. In any case, governments with the right priorities will have better knowledge with which to contain the epidemic with less drastic and harmful measures.
The search for the source of the outbreak continues. Neither the animal nor the geographical location have been determined, but the earliest infection in Wuhan is probably at least as far back as 17th November, over a month before the outbreak was detected. In some countries, examination of stored blood samples has been confirming the existence of Covid patients in November, and weaker evidence points to possible Covid in the US as far back as October. None of this changes the probability that the source was in Wuhan, or at least its province, Hubei. However, it means that the virus spread globally before the discovery of cases connected to the Wuhan markets. So instead of doubtful evidence, there is zero evidence of the Wuhan markets being the origin of the disease.
There are now many strains of the virus, with a great many minor variations. Scientists are using the distribution of these in time and location to build a genetic tree of mutations. This apparently still points to Hubei as the likely region where the virus passed from animal to human.
We keep hearing of progress on medical treatments and on vaccines, and whether it’s the companies or just the media, with continual noise implying vaccines will be available soon. Trump has advanced from expert on bleach injections to soothsayer giving a timetable for new vaccines, perhaps invigorated with his perceived success in stealing the work of European companies. However the reality is that, firstly there is plenty of doubt whether any of the hundred or more vaccines being tested will lead to one that is safe and effective, and still less certainty about how long a successful vaccine would last; secondly, the American and probably at least some of the European companies do not, on the whole, operate scientifically. They are in a race for windfall profits from being first to produce a patented vaccine. That means, as is normal in pharmaceuticals and weapons, secrecy that excludes the first principle of science, that it is a social activity that advances by timely sharing of discoveries and hypotheses.
With widespread agreement that Covid-19 will be with us indefinitely, and that we may have no effective treatments or vaccines for a considerable time, there is an obvious need for improvements in the public health defences. And in this area, scientists are also gradually gaining understanding that may enable a much better response to outbreaks than the familiar ‘lock-downs’.
Recall that early in the epidemic when it appeared to be mostly a Chinese problem, anti-Chinese propaganda focused as usual on civil liberties and criticised the lock-down as a typical autocratic assault on the long-suffering citizens, including of course the millions who might have died without that prompt response. Donald Trump’s remarks at that stage were more in tune with opinion around the world, admiring China’s effective handling of an emergency.
East Asian governments took heed of the warnings from China and took measures that effectively prevented disaster on the scale that struck Wuhan. Western governments, whether through bureaucratic inertia, taking their own silly propaganda seriously, or bad advice, did nothing until too late and when they woke up to the disastrous consequences, ignored constraints such as civil liberties, laws, and constitutions, and ordered lock-downs, some more effective than others, and all rather random in what was included and what was exempt.
At this stage, Trump morphed into Bart Simpson, saying repeatedly “I didn’t do it” to anyone who would listen, and declaring not only that China, whose response he had admired so much, had lied and tricked him, but that the WHO had corruptly connived in Chinese lies and disinformation.
It’s enormously popular to ridicule Trump, especially among liberals, which is to say fake, totalitarian, liberals. He gives an opportunity for mediocre thinkers to feel smart by making him look stupid. The US forced globalism on the world, harming subject nations like Australia that like to think of themselves as allies, for which purpose they have to turn a blind eye to the hard, and helping China to overtake the US as the world’s biggest manufacturer and then the biggest economy (though commonly ranked second by the device of counting in overvalued US dollars rather than real production).
When I compare with Bart, that’s just the denial of responsibility, a routine requirement in the warped system of US presidential elections. It’s widely agreed that this year’s election will be decided by China-bashing. The Clinton camp, or Biden camp to get technical, seem to think that they can save their breath and their budget, and rely on Covid-19 matters to destroy Trump’s support. That could be, for them, a costly blunder. Trump has an almost unassailable lead in China-bashing.
Trump clearly identified how globalist policy had led to the migration of US manufacturing to China, boosting China’s stupendous advances and leading to decay in the US. He acted aggressively on this, with punitive tariffs on Chinese imports, and secured an agreement with massive concessions from China. This was concurrent with the developing epidemic and highly relevant to his initial positive remarks about China’s response.
Given that Trump was widely blamed for the appalling consequences of US inaction over the epidemic, is it possible that he tried to kill two birds with one stone, secure re-election by means of anti-China rhetoric, and use that rhetoric to gain support for further reverses of globalism? Or perhaps a trifecta, getting revenge on Tedros for appointing Mugabe ambassador?
Trump doesn’t mind high odds, especially if he thinks he has resources to manipulate outcomes. It’s still a hell of a gamble. He won no friends by attacking the WHO, with only Australia backing him and Europe avoiding confrontation by sidestepping the issue and coming up with a resolution that merely tells the WHO to do what it already does. And blacklisting Chinese companies with the same bullying tactics against allies, tactics that have already harmed Europe, under the pretext of punishing Russia, is harmful to many other countries as well as to US companies. Trump may not care about the harm but he probably will care if it ends up with the US isolated instead of China.
An early attack on China’s ‘authoritarian’ approach by the Atlantic contrasts that “sledgehammer” with “responding to an emerging epidemic requires precision closer to brain surgery.” https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2020/01/china-quarantine-coronavirus/605455/
Article in Science on how the disease is spread: https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/why-do-some-covid-19-patients-infect-many-others-whereas-most-don-t-spread-virus-all
CNN on genetic analysis: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/05/05/health/genetics-coronavirus-spread-study/index.html