Podcast here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3G5H5L_fqs
As the coronavirus spreads in the US, we are reminded of the perennial war between human and nature. Nature gave us the space to thrive and grow as a species. Planet earth has just the right amount of oxygen and nitrogen to allow animal species including humans to breathe, whereby periods of increased oxygen supply results in bigger species like dinosaurs. Dinosaurs died out, in part, because a reduction in oxygen made their survival impossible. Nature also offers all the things we need to survive including food and oil. Oil is the accumulated ancient remains of dead species that are stored in liquid form. When humans began to use coal in 4,000 BC, it was a major intervention into nature, although it would take thousands of years with the Industrial Revolution until the impact on nature became significant enough to result in rising temperature and climate change. We are living with those effects today.
Human-nature relations are not entirely harmonious. Pestilence in the form of virus and bacteria have been around long before we humans existed. A virus can mutate and infect host species, which usually are animals. Humans have used domesticated animals for thousands of years, and hanging around infected domesticated animals can result in disease transmission and death. Agriculture, urbanization and globalization favor the transmission of disease, as the former increases the total population, the second increases density, and the latter moves these people into natural spaces (especially wild animals) that were previously undiscovered by humans.
Cold and flu have been quite common and recur every year, which results in the death of tens of thousands of people in the US alone. The plague is still raging in countries like Madagascar, while Ebola was a big problem in West Africa. Pandemics have been quite common, although the last major pandemic affecting the world has been the Spanish flu in 1918-20, which killed between 50 to 100 million people. Therefore, the current coronavirus comes as a substantial shock to many societies. I suspect there are not too many people alive today, who actively recall the Spanish flu. An important sociological takeaway from the history of pandemics is that it explains temporary social breakdown and focuses the human mind to address the problem as a common challenge.
I discuss briefly the three major pandemics, Black Death (plague) from 1346 to 1353 and the Spanish flu from 1918 to 1920, SARS in 2003 before turning to the evolution of the current COVID-19, coronavirus.
The Black Death or the Bubonic Plague was caused by Yersinia pestis, which was carried by fleas on ground rodents like marmots in Central and Western Asia. The warming of the climate in Asia pushed the rodents from dry grassland to more human populated areas. The first documented case of the plague occurred in 1338 in Kyrgyzstan, from which it spread to China and India, where a further outbreak was documented. In the 1330s to 1340s, 25 million people in Asia died as a result of the plague. By the autumn of 1347, the plague reached the Middle East via Alexandria, Egypt. It traveled to Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Palestine and then Arabia and the rest of north Africa. The disease reached Mecca in 1349. Muslim religious scholars thought that the plague was “martyrdom and mercy” from God and told believers that they would reach paradise upon death, thus being very skeptical of treating the disease with medicine. Other doctors applied strict preventive measures and treatments.
In October 1347, the plague reached Europe via Sicily. Genoese traders at the port of Kaffa, Crimea contracted the disease, as the invading Mongol army threw corpses of infected individuals over the city walls of Kaffa. The fleeing Genoese traders took the disease back to Italy. The plague reached Genoa and Venice in January 1348, and from there it was transmitted to Marseille, France. From there it went to Spain, Portugal, UK, Germany and then north to Scandinavia.
The main symptom of the plague was the swelling of lymph nodes on the groin, neck and armpits. This was followed by acute fever and vomiting of blood. Most victims die between 2 to 7 days after initial infection. Freckle-like spots and rashes were also quite common. In another common strand of the plague, breathing difficulties and pneumonia occurred. The plague recurred throughout the 14th to 17th centuries. It wasn’t until 1898 that Paul-Louis Simond found out that fleas were the carriers of the disease. By that point another outbreak began in southern China in 1865, which spread to India. Australia had plague outbreaks from 1900 to 1925, while San Francisco was struck in the first decade of 1900s. In the last 10 years, we see outbreaks on the island of Madagascar. In total, 75 to 200 million people died of the disease, primarily in Eurasia. Remote populations like the Australian Aborigines and the Native Americans were not impacted by the plague when it first struck in the fourteenth century, but when they were colonized by Europeans it was quite deleterious to these populations as they lacked exposure and hence immunity to those diseases.
In European cities, the Black Death produced a death toll of between 50 to 60%, whereby monks, nuns and priests were especially hard-hit because they cared for the patients. The social effects of the plague were profound. Because comparatively more lower class individuals (laborers and peasants) died of the disease, wages soared as labor shortages forced landowners to pay high wages to laborers and extract less rent on peasants. Pro-poor social changes and the rise of free farm laborers seeking the highest wage became important in the later period in Western Europe, which favored the market economy and the rise of the bourgeoisie in large cities. Survivors of the plague inherited the unclaimed land. In contrast, in eastern Europe the plague was equally devastating to the population, but landlords kept a tight leash on the subordinate peasantry. As a result, Russia did not abolish serfdom until the 1860s. The environmental effects of the 14th century plague was quite positive, as reduced human population meant less land use and reforestation, which cooled the climate. The inverse relationship between population numbers and a favorable climate is repeated today after over 200 years of industrialization and rapid population growth.
The spread of the disease has been favored by poverty, as these conditions are associated with the presence of lice, unsanitary drinking water and generally poor sanitation. Children and people with a weak immune system are especially vulnerable to the disease. Even as only selected poor countries are prone to be affected by the plague and vaccines have been developed to cure it, the plague bacterium could develop drug resistance, in which case a broader human population would be exposed to the plague.
The Spanish flu was the next largest epidemic, which killed between 50 to 100 million people, killing 2.5% of those infected (which is similar in range to what experts think the coronavirus causes, 0.5 to 3.5%). Common symptoms include fever, nausea, aches and diarrhea. Severe cases involved hemorrhage and pneumonia, which became a common cause of death. The Spanish flu was carried by birds, who then infected humans. A later strain affected swines, hence the 2009 swine flu. “Spanish” flu is somewhat of a misnomer, because even though it raged in Spain as well as in many other parts of the world, it was the free press reporting on it that provided an extensive record of how the disease impacted the population. What was especially devastating with the Spanish flu was that contrary to normal flus which harm small children and old people, it killed many young adults at the prime of their health, because their relatively stronger immune system produced a cytokine storm, which is an overreaction of the immune system which destroyed the patient’s lungs.
The Spanish flu arrived in two waves. First in the fall of 1917 and a stronger strain in the fall of 1918. There are disputes about the origin of the virus, ranging from Northern China, a military base in France and Kansas, US. The Spanish flu was not as fatal in China as in other parts of the world, which is likely because that flu strain hit the Chinese population before it affected other areas. The Spanish flu had immensely negative impacts in Europe, because the flu emerged toward the end of World War I. Pandemics are favored by high levels of population density, which was almost certainly the case in the trenches of World War I. It is also favored by globalization or the movement of people across borders, which was also the case with soldiers during the war. Soldiers were weakened by malnutrition during the intense battles, which made them more vulnerable to die. But what made the flu pandemic worse was that the soldiers that became infected by the severe strain were carried back to the medical camps, who spread the flu to all the other wounded via sneezing and coughing. Once these wounded returned to their home communities, they spread the disease to the civilian population. During peace time, the flu fails to be as deadly because the severe case patients stay home, while mild case patients go about their day and spread the mild rather than aggressive strain.
Here, variation in government policy had a substantial effect on the spread of the disease. In Philadelphia, the city decided not to cancel a war-bond rally even as hundreds of people had already been diagnosed with the flu. Over 45,000 people became infected and 12,000 Philadelphians died and the city’s activities ground to a halt. In contrast, St. Louis cancelled the rally, public schools and other public venues and the death toll was limited to 700. A total lockdown can keep the number of infected contained, which ultimately saves lives. On the other hand, given the virulence of a virus true protection can only occur if there is herd immunity, which is when roughly 60% of the population had contracted the virus, developed immunity for it and no longer spread it to the rest of the population. This is relevant for the coronavirus, which is discussed later.
Aside from Europe and the US, many deaths were reported elsewhere. In Japan, 23 million people were infected killing 390,000. In Indonesia, 1.5 million people died. In Iran an estimated 8 to 22% of the population perished. In Brazil it was 300,000. In Ghana, it was 100,000 people. Aside from China, one of the few light points of the pandemic was Denmark, where many people were exposed to the first wave and developed immunity when the second more deadly strain arrived. The mortality rate in the first wave was 0.02% and in the second wave 0.27%. More fortunately for the human race was that by November 1918 the number of deaths decreased substantially, which suggests that the more virulent strain died out.
Despite the high cost of life, the Spanish flu was a blip in overall human history as technological improvements in agriculture and medicine facilitated the further explosion of the population, such that we increased the global population from nearly 2 billion to 7.7 billion in the span of a century (1920 to 2020). The difference between the fourteenth century plague and the twentieth century Spanish flu is that the mortality rate was higher during the plague, even as the total number of death was higher in the Spanish flu. The plague tends to be more devastating in malnourished communities which was a much more common problem prior to industrial agriculture. The plague killed many religious clerics, while currently heavy death tolls occur among hospital and medical staff, which suggests a more scientific societal outlook.
But solving one disease does not solve all other diseases and nature keeps us working to find new means to fight new diseases. The flu can have extremely deadly mutations, which are favored with more densely populated areas and globalization (international travel via improved transportation networks). While the plague is confined to very underdeveloped countries, we have a flu season every year for most countries, whereby the peak is reached in the cold winter period when our immune system is most vulnerable. Acquiring immunity from one strain does not imply immunity from another, later strain, hence we are prone to become sick every year. Over 30,000 people have died from the flu in the US this season, most of which are elderly and people with pre-existing medical conditions.
More damaging than the flu has been the coronavirus of which COVID-19 is the seventh strain. The fifth and sixth strain of the coronavirus, SARS and MERS, require further elucidation before turning to COVID-19. A coronavirus is a viral respiratory disease, which attacks the lungs and causes flu-like symptoms including fever, muscle pain, lethargy, cough, sore throat and shortness of breath. In extreme cases, it results in pneumonia and death. The coronavirus comes from infected wild bats who come into contact with humans in wet markets and then spread the virus to humans, who can transmit the virus to other humans via respiratory droplets or fomites. The first dangerous strain was SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), of which there were over 8,000 cases, 774 deaths and a 9.6% death rate. Thus, while the strain was very deadly the prevalence of the disease was also very low. SARS emerged from cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in China’s Yunnan province.
China is extremely susceptible to originate coronavirus because of “wet markets” where bats are sold as delicacies. Bats would be stacked on top of other wild animals, who defecate on top of each other and spread infections. In the case of SARS, the first case was reported in November 2002, when a patient from Shunde, Foshan, Guangdong was treated in a hospital in Foshan. The patient died thereafter, but the authorities did not recognize that case as highly infectious and did not report the disease to the World Health Organization of the outbreak until February 2003. On January 31, 2003, a super-spreader (sick individual who infected many others) was admitted to the Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital in Guangzhou, which then spread it to other hospitals.
The Chinese authorities were very resistant in cooperating with global authorities to combat the disease and it wasn’t until April 2003 that they let in international officials to investigate the situation. As an authoritarian society, the government did not allow for honest reporting of the disease, which resulted in the undetected spread of the disease, especially in hospital settings. The WHO was informed in February 2003 about the disease as an Italian doctor Carlo Urbani, who worked in a Hanoi hospital in Vietnam, treated Johnny Chen, an American businessman with SARS fell ill after visiting China. Both Urbani and Chen died, but now the international community was alerted. Hong Kong was disproportionately impacted by SARS. Mainland China reported 5,327 cases while it was 1,755 in Hong Kong. Canada was a western country with the largest SARS exposure documenting 251 cases, primarily from Hong Kong and Mainland residents flying to Canada. Taiwan reported 346 and Singapore 238 cases. South Korea notably only had 3 cases, which might explain why South Korea was overwhelmed by COVID-19 while Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore were quite well prepared for the current strain.
By July 2003, SARS had been contained although China still reported selected cases in December 2003 and January 2004. All went well. What helped containment was the warmer weather, although the spike in cases occurred between March and the middle of May. More importantly, the deadliness of SARS (nearly 10% fatality) meant that the highest infectiousness was for the sickest patients, who could be isolated because of the severity of their symptoms. COVID-19 has a fatality of between 0.5 and 3.5%, much higher than the common flu (0.1%), but much lower than SARS which might explain the high case load for COVID-19 (150,000 as of March 14, although it is still growing exponentially and there are likely millions of undetected cases as of now). With SARS resolved, researchers still warned the public that a new strain could spread more deadly and widely, and, indeed, as of now, COVID-19 killed over 5,000 people compared to 774 from SARS.
MERS, Middle East Respiratory Disease, is another coronavirus that emerged in 2012 when the first case was reported in Saudi Arabia. MERS also came from Australian or African bats but transmitted the disease to camels in the mid-1990s before transmitting to humans by the early-2010s. Camels are delicacies in Saudi Arabia and UAE. By 2017, there have been over 2,000 cases and 600 deaths with a case fatality rate of over 30%. MERS is, thus, unusually deadly, but the high lethality also made it unlikely to become a pandemic because infected patients tended to have severe symptoms which resulted in them being isolated from the wider community. There has been no vaccine for either SARS or MERS, so infected patients with severe symptoms have to be attached to ventilators to be supplied with oxygen, hoping that these patients can recover.
SARS and MERS are the predecessors to COVID-19 or COVID for brevity. Like the other coronavirus strains COVID attacks the lungs and result in shortness of breath, dry cough, fever and in extreme cases pneumonia. It is more infectious though less lethal than SARS or MERS which is reflected in the exponentially rising caseload all over the world. There are many asymptomatic cases who, nonetheless, spread the infection unwittingly, hence the sharply rising numbers for COVID. Elderly people are disproportionately affected by severe symptoms and death, while no children below the age of 10 have died from COVID. It began in the wet market of Wuhan, with infected bats or infected pangolins transmitting the disease to local buyers. Human infection likely occurred in the third week of November, which was reported in a Wuhan newspaper on November 17, 2019. Community spread (human-to-human transmission) in Wuhan began to happen, making Wuhan the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic.
In the early stage of the disease, the Wuhan authorities ignored the warning of doctors about the community spread and actively silenced and censored them on social media. But as infections and number of deaths spiked and the hospitals began to be overwhelmed, Chinese netizens began to share stories of the disease and their experiences in the overwhelmed medical facilities resulting in a massive panic and confusion. (In contrast, during SARS there was no social media or widespread internet use.) In January 17, the Wuhan authorities reassured residents that lunar year celebrations could continue to be held, which drastically increased infections (as in Philadelphia during the Spanish flu). On January 20, the pandemic became so large that the Beijing authorities stepped in and declared a lockdown of Wuhan on January 23, which was extended to the whole province a day later. Initial government incompetence and online censorship allowed the situation to fester in the initial period.
What happened since then is equally amazing. Once the Chinese authorities identified the problem they introduced an effective lockdown, setting up checkpoints everywhere in Hubei to not allow people to move around, hence containing the spread to other provinces. All lunar celebrations and travel options across the country were also cancelled or interrupted. They also created makeshift hospitals that were set up within a few days to cope with the growing health care demands, which most other countries would have struggled with. By the end of February, China brought the disease under control by reducing the daily increase in COVID infections, thus being the only country in the world to do so, while everywhere else we see an exponential rise in cases. It remains an open question whether the cases will spike substantially if public life returns to normal.
In the last week of January, first cases became reported in other parts of the world, primarily in countries that service many flights to China, East Asia, Western Europe and North America. Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong are noteworthy cases of effective containment given their trauma and experience from SARS. Effective and determined authorities can contain the spread of the virus. Singapore suspended all flights from Wuhan early on and tracks down every suspected case of COVID patient and test their immediate social contacts as well, which is called contact tracing. The government encourages people to get tested for the virus and does not charge them for it. It offers self-employed people $100 Singapore dollars a day and employers are prohibited from deducting annual leave from staff who take off from work. Singapore’s leader, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, has been very forthright communicating with the public which prevented hamster buying in stores. Taiwan and Hong Kong similarly banned travel from the mainland. Hong Kong also cancelled schools and any public gatherings. Given the traumatic experiences of SARS 17 years ago, many people are compliant with the government request.
In other parts of the world, the public health response has been weaker. South Korea, Iran, Italy and now Spain have become the new epicenters of COVID, even as cases are rising in most parts of the world. South Korea was barely impacted by SARS, but it has effective public health authorities which resulted in substantial testing capabilities being rolled out. It tested 10,000 people per day and imposed self-isolation on patients testing positive, while also aggressively using disinfectants. Therefore, the number of new infections are now receding. Japan had a pathetic response with more than 1,000 detected infections and struggled handling the Diamond Princess Cruise ship with 700 infections. They were holed up in the port of Yokohama and were not allowed to disembark the ship as the authorities feared spread.
Iran’s cases began to spike since the end of February, and the regime has refused to close businesses and mosques and impose a quarantine, fearing even more unrest due to economic hardship. Hardship is already quite severe with the reimposition of US sanctions in 2018. With oil prices collapsing as a result of the global economic slowdown, the regime faces cash shortages, which forced it to go to the IMF to apply for a $5 billion loan. The short-term focus on preserving economic activity does not help the economy either as hospitalization and deaths mount.
In Europe the new epicenter became northern Italy’s Lombardy region. The death toll mounted as the Italian authorities gravely underestimated the severity of the pandemic. It did not do a lockdown until the second week of March, when the first cases cropped up in late January. As of March 14, Italy has over 21,000 confirmed cases and 1,400 deaths, which is aggravated by the fact that so many Italians are old age. The lockdown and associated social isolation is quite unusual for Italian culture, which is very affectionate and is captured in the following statement
When people have appeared, they’ve given one another a wide berth. So un-Italian. Normally, people charge into each other and greet with affection, shaking hands, kissing and embracing. Italy is a touchy-feely society. We tend to trust our senses and intuition more than grand ideas (those are Germany’s trademark). For us, life is food, wine, music, arts, design, landscape; the smell of the countryside; the warmth of one’s family, and the embrace of friends. Those involve our mouths, our noses, our ears, our eyes, our hands. Fear of Covid-19 forces us to repudiate those senses. It’s painful.New York Times (March 12, 2020)
At this point, we are facing a global pandemic. Countries that believe that they can ride this out are badly mistaken. Most humans in the world have no acquired immunity for COVID and given the power of the community spread not doing a lockdown, social distancing (i.e. cancelling of all mass events and minimizing human contact) and aggressive testing and treatment will result in a huge jump in the death toll. Surely, the social costs of the virus are huge as humans are social animals, yet we are told to reduce social interactions that are face-to-face. For the small minority of people, who are adept hermits, life may not change that much, but for most of the rest of society, the COVID pandemic will be very disruptive. One of the few silver linings is that an enforced hermit lifestyle can result in more contemplation and taking things more lightly, which could result in long-term social changes. Less work, more contemplation.
To allow the health systems to cope with the patient-intake the spread of the disease has to be extended for as long as possible, which is the meaning of “flattening the curve”. Flattening the curve does not necessarily mean that the virus will be contained (i.e. preventing the exposure to the virus). We are in mitigation stage and that assumes the need for herd immunity, i.e. 60% of the population must be exposed to the disease and acquire immunity to make further spread to the rest of the population unlikely. On the other hand, if as is the case in China, the exposure can be limited, then herd immunity might not be required to root out COVID. Containment, if feasible, is still the preferred route as it would lower the death toll, although it is difficult because once life returns to normal it takes only one infectious person to repeat the ordeal.
Only few leaders will openly admit that herd immunity is a possible solution like Angela Merkel or Boris Johnson. In the case of the British PM, he made it sound like it was not necessary to cancel public events (fearing that it would undermine legitimacy) and desires to reach the peak disease as soon as possible so that we can go back to business-as-usual. But the “collateral damage” of tens of thousands of excess death is quite a steep price to pay and irresponsible for a leader. To be fair, the UK government wants to “spread out the period of the disease” by telling older and sicker populations to avoid leaving the house. But letting the adult, non-elderly population be exposed to disease is also irresponsible. In addition, the medical advice that infected patients with symptoms should stay home for 7 days is inadequate as infectious period and incubation can be much longer than that, thus still endangering weaker populations. Allowing public life to continue uninterrupted will spike caseload and death toll, which will overwhelm the health service and generate social panic. I suspect the British government will change tack and impose the lockdown in the near future, but will have a sharper rise in infections and death than if they acted immediately.
The most gentle and only ethically defensible way to attain herd immunity is by developing and dispensing a vaccine, though that will take years to develop and we haven’t had a good track record with getting a vaccine for previous strains of the coronavirus.
In the US, the Trump administration’s incompetence is finally proving fatal. First, he downplayed the severity of the crisis, promising people that the few existing cases can be reduced to zero. As the crisis is escalating, he now denies testing kits because he fears high numbers would lower his reelection chances. This is the most stupid response one can have about the pandemic. By keeping the public ignorant about their symptoms the number of cases will sky-rocket as not enough infected people self-quarantine. The next step of the administration’s PR effort will be to deny the escalating death toll as “fake news”. Trump is directly contradicting his public health officials, exhibiting his ignorance and incompetence to handle the crisis.
Dishonest leadership results in chaos and confusion in the public. States and municipalities are left on their own to figure out how to get ventilators, testing kits or hand sanitizers. For a rich country, the US is unusually poorly prepared because of the lack of family and medical leave policy and a privatized for-profit health care system. Presently people who want to be tested have to pay $1000 and treatment could cost tens of thousands of dollars. Pharma companies want to profit from this crisis by charging a lot for the vaccine when it comes out. This will deter treatment and can exacerbate the pandemic as untreated patients continue showing up at work and infecting and killing more people. As the stock markets are tanking, the Fed has pumped half a trillion dollars to support big banks and large corporations, while the Trump administration is still carrying out cuts in CDC (Center for Disease Control) funding. The CDC is needed more than ever to find a cure to COVID. The wrong priorities of the government will exacerbate the effects of the pandemic.
What we need is a complete lockdown of public life, which has in part already happened. As people are traveling less, restaurants and shops are less visited and public events and conferences are canceled, many businesses like airlines or caterers are laying off workers. Those privileged enough to shift to tele-working will do so, but that is not feasible in all jobs, especially not in the vital low-skilled service sector (food, hospitality, retail, transportation, warehousing, delivery). The unemployment rate will rise and social suffering can increase as most people don’t have any economic savings. Trump’s response is to temporarily cut the payroll tax, which won’t amount to much money because shift cutbacks would more than compensate the small income gains of the payroll tax cut, and it won’t help people who become unemployed. The government has six months of unemployment insurance, although if it takes longer for life to get back to normal, the expiration of unemployment insurance would be devastating. Reasonable politicians like Bernie Sanders are calling for an expansion of unemployment and paid sick leave. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Tulsi Gabbard demand a universal basic income, which would be the ideal policy.
I am even more worried about the pandemic’s impact on less developed countries that lack proper medical facilities. Surely, their more youthful population might make them more resistant than the rapidly aging Italian population. On the other hand, given that malnourishment is not solved in all less developed countries, physically weaker individuals could be more prone to develop severe cases from COVID, while public safety and law enforcement are incapable of sufficiently enforcing social distancing.
The negative economic ramifications of COVID are quite severe, although the implications for the environment are quite positive as less transportation and consumption reduces CO2 emissions. The air quality in China has notably improved with the travel restrictions and lockdown. Humans have long had a major influence on the environment but it has taken a pandemic to reduce that influence. Recall that the Black Plague in the fourteenth century led to reforestation and a cooler climate for a while.
While public health authorities are overwhelmed by the patient load and scientists are frantically developing a vaccine, public discourse is completely confused over COVID. Unlike previous pandemics we live in a world of social media, where communication is instantaneous, so we have seen the avalanche when it began in Wuhan and radiated to other parts of the world. People can google information on the virus and how it spreads and take measures to delay the spread. The unfortunate reality, however, is that the vast majority of people are neither scientists nor do they have a scientific mindset. Thus, rumors can easily spread, which are silly at best and dangerous at worst. President Trump’s anti-science mindset is likely in the latter category and I suggest you google his statements himself to make yourself a picture.
In the early days of COVID coverage in January, racist attacks against Asians ticked upward, as other racial groups believed that any Asian must be the carrier of the virus even if they hadn’t been to China in the recent past and even as the disease began to spread across the world and affecting all races of people. Surely, there has been a problem with the wet markets in Wuhan and the sale of wild animals must be banned, although on the other hand, the presence of avian and swine flu suggests that even frequently consumed domesticated animals can transmit diseases to humans.
Within Chinese-speaking networks and right-wing US networks there are rumors about the US having deliberately spread the virus in China. The origin of the rumor is a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao. This is evidently combative cold war rhetoric, which has no basis in reality but is meant to inflame tensions between the two major economic powers of the world.
Public ignorance about the crisis can exacerbate the crisis and the way to deal with it is to have strong political leadership, where politicians and scientific advisors continuously communicate to the public and assuage irrational fears, although it is not obvious whether we will be able to observe this level of leadership in all cases. In the US case, we have an evident lack of leadership.
Whether it is the plague, the flu or the coronavirus, diseases have always been with us. While we do not cause the disease directly, human decisions matter in how severe the disease is and improved science can help us mitigate these diseases (which has been the case with the plague and also HIV, which is not cured but held at bay via anti-retrovirals), even as there is a risk for drug resistance. But the irony is that it is our scientific advances that have also made us more susceptible to potential pandemics. By becoming first an agricultural and then an industrial society, we have increased our population size substantially. Increasing urban density increases the risk of spreading diseases. And so does globalization, which is made possible by advances in information and communication technology. By interacting with animals, either domesticated or wild, we are getting our required calories but expose ourselves to disease.
Thus, what is at heart in the COVID pandemic and other past pandemics is that we humans are at war with nature, and it is a war in which our species is inferior. Fundamentally, human life is only possible as part of nature, having the right amount of oxygen and nitrogen, having access to fossil fuels and other raw material that shape our material lives, having enough drinking water and so forth. The reverse dependence is at best tenuous. Planet earth would be no worse off without humans (assuming it has any feelings). In fact, not having humans around would perhaps be even better for other animal species, whose habitat won’t be destroyed by human settlements and climate change.
Now we are being hit by a pandemic. The adaptability of diseases means that we can see a more benign or a more malign mutation, which will put an unbearable stress on the health care system and result in the loss of many people’s lives. The severity of climate change means that even if pandemics remain temporary inconveniences, climate change is here with us and making more lives a living hell. And even as our survival as a species is uncertain, the fundamental reality is that for us as individuals life is limited. “We come from dust and we shall return there”, whether it be from COVID, flu, heart attack, accident, cancer or infirmity. Being aware of our mortality gives added emphasis to the slogan ‘Carpe Diem!’ The silver lining is that COVID focuses the human mind, and in the coming days and weeks ahead, we have to practice social distancing even as we have to care for each other.