Will China Win the Pandemic World War?
“When paranoid, you can be wrong 1,000 times and you will survive. If non-paranoid; wrong once, and you, your genes, and the rest of your group are done.”
~Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, Antifragile, Skin in the Game, and Fooled by Randomness. On Twitter concerning the Covid-19 threat, February 23, 2020.
Will China, the first country (and superpower) to suffer the effects of Covid-19, also be the first country to recover, and thereby gain an overwhelming strategic advantage, while the USA, Europe and the rest of the world suffer the pandemic’s worst effects for a longer and even more catastrophic period?
It may be useful to analyze Covid-19 as if it were a biological WMD attack with global reach. The origins of Covid-19 might be natural (from Chinese bat cuisine sold in Wuhan “wet markets”), or accidental (coming from a Wuhan biological research experiment), but in the end, this won’t matter to its victims.
Last weekend, I went to my local big-box home improvement store to buy some pandemic preps. On my list were rubber gloves and N-95 filter masks, items falling under the category of Personal Protective Equipment or PPE. These items and my other half-dozen purchases had something in common: they were all manufactured in China. My local store still had some N-95 masks on the shelf, but they are probably burning through their last cargo containers, with no more shipments arriving from China. There was a hand-written sign above the masks limiting ten to a customer, indicating a possible shortage.
A Los Alamos National Laboratory analysis of the outbreak in China in December 2019 and January 2020 puts the unrestrained R0 of Covid-19 at between 4.5 and 6.6. (The R-naught figure indicates the contagiousness of a disease in a given environment. If the number is above one, it’s spreading.)
[Excerpts:] Integrating uncertainties in the exponential growth rate estimated from the ‘first arrival’ approach and the uncertainties in the duration of latent and infectious periods, we estimated the values of R0 to be 6.3 and 4.7. The high R0 values we estimated have important implications for disease control.
The 2019-nCoV epidemic is still rapidly growing and spread to more than 20 countries as of February 5, 2020. Here, we estimated the growth rate of the early outbreak in Wuhan to be 0.29 per day (a doubling time of 2.4 days), and the reproductive number, R0, to be between 4.7 to 6.6.
How contagious the 2019-nCoV is in other countries remains to be seen. If the value of R0 is as high in other countries, our results suggest that active and strong population-wide social distancing efforts, such as closing down transportation system, schools, discouraging travel, etc., might be needed to reduce the overall contacts to contain the spread of the virus.
This shockingly high original Chinese R0 value meant a doubling of the number of cases every few days, and subsequently, regional hospitals were overrun by infected patients. The Chinese experience indicates how it may spread in the West and the 3rd world. Critically, the often-quoted case fatality rate (CFR) of “only” 2% for Covid-19 occurs when severely affected patients have access to first-class medical treatment, with teams of nurses and doctors caring for them in isolation ICUs. About 15% of people infected with the virus will develop severe symptoms (pneumonia, etc.) requiring intensive individual treatment in order to survive. Once hospitals are swamped and many of the medical staff become infected, the CFR can swiftly rise to above 15%. This is believed to be the situation inside the Wuhan City quarantine zone.
An infectious disease with an R-naught above five, and the number of cases doubling every two days, is like a biological atomic bomb chain reaction, particularly in the age of jet travel to all points of the globe. Professionally trained, rational, cold-hearted and deeply analytical Chinese generals and leading politicians surely must understand the differing impacts of a Covid-19 pandemic on China when compared to the West.
Do you remember this famous scene from Doctor Strangelove?
“Mr. President, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth, both for ourselves as human beings, and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose, between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable post-war environments. One, where you got twenty million people killed, and the other, where you got 150 million people killed.”
A rational way to envision the Covid-19 outbreak is to compare it to the accidental release of a globally dangerous WMD. Consider the strategic thinking of China’s national leaders: “All right, the release of the virus has happened, and it’s admittedly regrettable, but what’s done is done … so what shall we do next?”
Until effective vaccines or other medical treatments are developed, the only currently demonstrated successful measures for combating Covid-19 are strictly enforced quarantines and rigid controls on population movement, which the Chinese Communist total-surveillance police state is uniquely able to accomplish. That is the level of population control being applied in China to bring their current Covid-19 R0 down from 5 to 2 or even lower, as indicated by a leveling off in their number of new cases, (if their official numbers may be believed at all.)
Chinese police have welded apartment doors and gates closed, and in the next week or month (if the inhabitants are still alive), the police can return to force them back to work in essential factories, despite their renewed risk of infection. This unsurpassed degree of social control gives China a major advantage when compared to its competitors in the West, where, with a Covid-19 outbreak with an R0 above 4 or even 3, hospitals will be overrun (a first-order effect), and then supermarkets will be looted (a second-order effect.) Panic shopping has already begun in Iran and affected regions of Italy. Additionally, I don’t believe that Italian, American or other Western-nation police will shoot-to-kill citizens evading quarantine zones, or looting food stores.
Please imagine American cities during a Covid-19 outbreak with a high R0 infectiousness number. Once the hospitals are overrun, panic will ensue and supermarkets will be looted, followed by pharmacies, liquor and gun stores. In that perilous environment, there will be no timely food resupply. Desperately hungry Americans will defy orders to self-quarantine and go out on foraging expeditions. The second- and third-order knock-on effects of a Covid-19 pandemic may be worse than the disease itself. Even safe water supplies and electrical power grids might be at risk.
This is what the Chinese generals and politburo members must be pondering at the end of February 2020. In the face of the global Covid-19 pandemic, China’s unique ability to self-quarantine and maintain social control may be a paramount strategic advantage. In this environment, I can easily imagine a Chinese “General Turgidson” suggesting:
“President Xi, we are rapidly approaching a moment of truth, both for ourselves as human beings, and for the life of our nation. Now, truth is not always a pleasant thing. But it is necessary now to make a choice, to choose, between two admittedly regrettable, but nevertheless distinguishable post-pandemic environments. One where China wins…and the West loses.”
Even without intentionally spreading Covid-19 to the West by sending infected travelers abroad, the Chinese can still tilt the pandemic playing field to their advantage in order to win this inadvertent biological World War. The Chinese, fully understanding the extreme danger of unrestrained Covid-19 outbreaks with a high R0, must realize that new outbreaks may totally destroy Western cities, where enforcing draconian Chinese levels of social control will be impossible.
The USA and the West will quickly run out of Chinese-made PPE, medication, and hospital supplies. For example, China has nationalized the U.S.-owned factory that makes our N-95 masks and will, instead, keep them for their own use. The Chinese have seen Trump’s tariffs as outright economic warfare. Now, in my judgment, they are going to repay us by withholding shipments of PPE and medical supplies. China will leverage its present status as “factory to the world” to their best advantage while they still retain it. These critically needed supplies will be kept in China for their own use during the pandemic, and understandably so.
So, now it will be a race to see if America can set up enough factories to manufacture our own PPEs and other medical supplies rapidly enough to meet our soon-to-be exploding needs. China’s providing, or withholding, of required medical supplies will constitute a World War dimension of the pandemic. They will not send infected travelers to Western cities: they don’t need to do this. That ship has sailed; that horse is out of the barn. Covid-19 will now travel on its own, with asymptomatic “super spreaders” carrying the virus from country to country for as long as unrestricted air travel is permitted. Then it will spread within each country, with every Western and third-world city a potential Wuhan.
China’s recent history teaches us that interpersonal social interaction has to be reduced as much as possible to get the R naught number down to controllable levels, but this radical reduction comes at a heavy price. When people don’t go to work out of fear of infection, or after being ordered by their governments to self-quarantine at home, economies shrink and eventually collapse. After weeks of forced home quarantine, China is now trying to restart critical factories, but this risks boosting their R0 number once again, leading to more hospitals being overrun and another round of chain-reaction contagion.
China has been involved in the Covid-19 World War longer than any other country, so their base of knowledge is greater than anywhere else. Their harsh Communist police-state controls mean that people will obey official orders, whether to self-quarantine or return to work, as their government attempts to find a sustainable balance between the rate of infection, and maintaining an economy capable of feeding its population.
I wonder if Western nations, America in particular, will be able to find that necessary balance in societies and cultures that glorify the defiance of authority. If American cities experience a rate of infection high enough to swamp their medical infrastructure, I fear that the second- and third-order effects of a Covid-19 pandemic may result in social collapse. The fractured America of 2020 bears little resemblance to the united, stoical and obedient wartime America of 1918, when we experienced our last deadly pandemic.
Right or wrong, some Chinese “General Turgidsons” may even be considering the possibility that China could inherit a largely depopulated planet, after the Pandemic World War. Africa for the taking. South America with a begging cup in hand. Europe and America, their survivors scavenging among the ruins. China wins.
I’m not saying that I believe this will happen, but it would not surprise me if some key Chinese leaders may be thinking along these lines … and that’s enough.
February 27 update: As usual, I just watched the most recent YouTube video by Dr. John Campbell (Covid-19 Thursday monring 27 Feb). Since he has gained global exposure, he’s getting emails from physicians all over the world, including Iran and China. He typed up an email he received from the city of Chengdu, population 16 million, which relates their mandatory quarantine rules as China struggles to get Covid-19 under control. When the virus runs rampant and hospitals are overrun, as in Wuhan and Hunan Province, the death rate soars to over 15%, according to many accounts. Under the strict quarantine rules in the image below, the death rate can be kept to below 2%, but at the cost of crippling the economy.
Now, just imagine trying to enforce this level of social control in American cities.