Coronavirus: the long road from lockdown to whack-a-mole

World by Gwynne Dyer

It’s wrong to say there is no exit strategy from the anti-coronavirus lockdowns that have proliferated across the world. There is, and the first phase is to keep the lockdowns going long enough to bring new Covid-19 infections down to a manageable number. Maybe by June.

Then you start playing whack-a-mole until there is a vaccine (minimum 18 months). If there is no effective vaccine, then you have to keep doing it until your population has developed herd immunity — two to four years for most places (but only if surviving the infection confers lasting immunity). But at least you can reopen most of your economy.

These are the best options left for the countries that missed the bus when the coronavirus first appeared three months ago — which is to say practically all of them, with the exception of the East Asian countries: China, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Americans are 120 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than Chinese citizens.

The most important (and startling) statistic of the current pandemic is that Americans are 120 times more likely to die of Covid-19 than Chinese citizens.

We know how many Chinese died with some precision, because the dying has stopped in China, at least for the moment. The total is 3,331, most of them in Wuhan or the surrounding province of Hubei. The only new cases now being reported in China are in citizens returning from abroad.

The predicted death toll from Covid-19 in the United States, according to no less an authority than President Donald Trump, is 100,000.

You may be sure that that is the lowest number Trump thinks he can get away with. His chief infectious disease adviser, Anthony Fauci, actually said: “Looking at what we’re seeing now, I would say between 100,000 and 200,000 … deaths” on March 29. But let’s stick with the lowball figure.

One hundred thousand American deaths is a toll 30 times higher than 3,331 Chinese deaths, but that still leaves one important factor out. The population of China is four times larger than that of the United States. So in proportion to its population, Covid-19 will kill Americans at 120 times the rate it killed Chinese people.

That is shockingly high, but the comparable rates for major European countries are just as bad. Italy and Spain have just passed the peak rate of deaths — the daily rate has been falling since last week — and will probably end up with around 20,000 deaths each. The United Kingdom is still climbing the curve but will probably end up in the same place.

Each of these countries has about one-fifth the population of the United States and is facing about one-fifth the number of deaths. If the American death toll climbs well above 100,000, then you can start blaming Trump for the excess deaths, but there is something more fundamental happening here.

All these countries only moved very late to act against the virus, so late that their only remaining option was lockdown. Whereas all the east Asian countries reacted at once.

China, where the coronavirus originated, was blindsided by the wave of deaths in Wuhan, but as soon as the virus had been identified Beijing locked the city down and soon after, the whole country.

A week or two were lost to the Chinese regime’s denial and its reluctance to damage the economy, but the reaction was still fast enough. The lockdown worked, and most Chinese are now back to work.

South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong got the warning at the same time as everybody else. No country other than China needed to go into lockdown at that point, because the coronavirus had not yet gained a firm foothold in their populations.

The East Asian countries have some serious experience of pandemics, however, so they immediately started testing frantically to identify new clusters of infection, tracing all the contacts of the infected people and isolating everybody involved to break the chains of infection.

These methods never detect all of those infected. The ones that are missed will cause new clusters of infection to emerge a few weeks later, so this is a never-ending game of whack-a-mole which requires a small army of testers and contact tracers. But it keeps the death toll down and the economy open.

Western countries did not use the ample time they had to put a similar system in place. They didn’t even stock up on masks, ventilators and protective clothing. They let the infection spread so widely that only a long, full lockdown could contain it. Why? Arrogance, wishful thinking, and a fierce determination not to harm economic growth.

A great many unnecessary deaths later, when the remaining number of infections is down to Korean levels, Western countries will finally be able to reopen their economies and join the game of whack-a-mole. But by that time, of course, the pandemic will be rampaging through Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and Latin America.

Back to normal is still a long way off.

Gwynne Dyer’s most recent book is Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).