Mark Pinner Mark Pinner

Given that we don’t even know how the Covid-19 Coronavirus spreads, it is unsurprising that governments are taking different responses to the virus.

How do we examine these approaches? Let’s look at a few examples.

First, there is the swift and decisive approach. Taiwan and Singapore are very impressive examples of this and appear to have been ready for an outbreak following their experiences dealing with SARS. They have curtailed the spread of the virus through a combination of the very introduction of measures, relentless tracking of infected patients, extensive testing and sharing information among the public. As of 13 March, Taiwan has had only 50 confirmed cases, while Singapore had 187, and numbers appear stable.

China has implemented a ‘late but decisive’ approach. They were slow to react as the disease began to spread but then shifted into overdrive with a massive response and strict social controls across the country. This has caused huge economic disruption, shutting down most industries for nearly two months. Although China has had over 80,000 cases and 3,000 deaths, the disease is now under control and should soon be ended, with only 21 new cases reported on 12 March across the entire country.

Some countries are being quickly overwhelmed. Reports from Northern Italy – an area with one of the most advanced healthcare systems in the world – are very worrying. Doctors are reporting critical shortages of equipment facilities and being faced with difficult decisions about which patients to help and which they can’t even try to support. On 12 March, the number of cases rose 21% to 15,113, with 189 fatalities.

Looking at the UK, it has nearly 800 cases with numbers rising fast, but not quite yet in the league of Italy.

So what is the government’s response? It appears the government has three main possible approaches to dealing with Coronavirus:

A)  ‘Shock and control’ – Try to halt the virus altogether à la China with extreme controls. This should work – at least it has done in China – but at the cause of enormous economic and social disruption that is hard for the public to accept. This is probably connected with systems of government: the UK and other Western democracies are not the same as one-party states such as China, for which their citizens tolerate a far higher degree of governmental restrictions and control.

B)  ‘Swift and decisive’ – Use elements of the former, adding Taiwanese or Singapore style tracking and testing. However, this becomes harder as case numbers rise and the UK has already probably passed the chance of doing this.

C)  ‘Delay and prepare’ – delay the spread so that cases occur slowly but over a longer period of time: ‘flattening the curve’ of the epidemic. This aims at reducing the strain on the NHS so that as many people as possible will be able to have inpatient medical support when they need it, while presuming that the disease is almost unstoppable. Unfortunately, this means that many – perhaps even most – people will catch it, but that the death rate should fall. Also, the country will build immunity for the next time it is exposed to the virus.

The government has chosen c) – preparing for but not enacting strict controls until absolutely necessary.

This is controversial. No less than former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has been critical of the government’s approach, calling for increased measures such as used in Taiwan and Singapore. So too has the editor of the science journal The Lancet, accusing the government are “playing Russian roulette” with the public.

The government counters, by saying that banning large events can be counterproductive: for example, sports events fans will instead congregate outside sports stadia or meet together in pubs which is just as risky. They add that there is a limit to how much people will support extreme ‘social control’ measures, and if these are enacted too soon people will tire of them and undermine their effectiveness.

The government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance notes that trying to suppress the spread of the epidemic would require a four-month “lockdown”. Additionally – and very seriously – he adds that a lockdown is likely to only be temporary, risking another outbreak the following winter.

This leads us to a serious problem: what happens when countries follow these different approaches to dealing with the virus?

The German/UK approach should take time but lead to immunity among the people. China has been successful in ending the disease, probably faster than Germany and/or the UK will, but are vulnerable to repeated outbreaks.

This means that they will have to keep controls on visitors while the disease is rampant elsewhere. But how long will this last?

At very least it means very few people will be travelling to China for the next few months or otherwise be faced with quarantine. This will restrict international businesses’ operations, as very few people will travel from Europe to China, with corresponding impact on trade and investment.
More seriously, the difficulty in engaging on a commercial level will damage trade, commerce and cultural links, perhaps help the ‘decoupling’ favoured by China ‘hawks’. Business leaders in Asia have already been talking about how once businesses have found alternative suppliers to China that it is very difficult for their former suppliers to get business back.

However, the same issue may affect European and US companies and is also likely to do the same in other markets that become badly affected.

What can we look forward to? Well, this looks like it could be a serious blow to the world economy which will, on the face of it, increase national barriers. However, with luck it is also possible that governments around the world could adopt mutually supportive measures to help combat the epidemic. If so this could help and not hinder the world economy.

Time will tell.