The human cost of the coronavirus outbreak is climbing across China and beyond

The human cost of the coronavirus outbreak is climbing across China and beyond

That damage is, for the most part, not due to the virus itself so much as efforts to prevent it spreading.

There are strict restrictions on moving out of Wuhan, where the outbreak began, a city with a population of 11 million.

The lockdown, also now extended to other parts of Hubei province, prevents business-related travel as well as the movement of goods and workers.


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Fear of the virus also means many people will choose to avoid activities they think might expose them to the risk of infection.

So restaurants, cinemas, transport providers, hotels and shops are all quickly feeling the impact.

And the timing of the health crisis, during the lunar New Year break, means those industries have been particularly exposed to commercial losses.

 

The New Year holiday was extended for a few days by the national Chinese authorities and there have been longer extensions imposed by some provincial authorities, delaying the return to work for some businesses even longer.

Any delay resuming production and selling goods is likely to lead to cash-flow problems, especially for smaller operations.

Many companies will have to continue paying bills, including employees’ pay.

And for manufacturers selling goods abroad, there may be some issues with buyers becoming more reluctant to buy from China.

Herbert Wun, who owns Wing Sang Electrical, which makes products such as hair-straighteners and blow-dryers in Guangdong province, told BBC News, many companies would not have much slack to take this kind of impact, coming, as it did, on top of the US-China trade war.

And the epidemic “will add to the pressure on customers trying to shift their supply chain away from China”.

 

Financial markets have also felt the effect of the health crisis.

Stock markets around the world are lower than they were two weeks ago. China’s market fell 8% on the first day of trading after the holiday.

There has been a particularly marked impact on the prices of industrial commodities, as China is such an important buyer.

Crude oil hit its lowest level in more than a year.

It has dropped by about 15% in the past two weeks, reflecting declining demand from China – underlined by reports the country’s leading refiner, Sinopec, is cutting back.

A group of oil exporting nations is considering production cuts in an effort to reverse the price fall.

Copper is also cheaper – by about 13% over the past two weeks.

It is an important material for the construction industry, which is also sure to be affected in China.

 

Many of the suppliers of these commodities are emerging and developing economies.

It is early days to attempt to quantify the likely economic effects.

Much will depend on how well the Chinese authorities are able to contain the virus.

But some forecasters have made rather tentative efforts to put some numbers on the impact.

One example is the consultancy Oxford Economics which predicts the Chinese economy will grow less than 4% in the first quarter of 2020 from a year earlier.

For the full year, the forecast is average growth of 5.6%.

For both figures, the previous, pre-virus forecast was 6%.

It also expects the global economy to grow slightly less – by 0.2 percentage points – than it would have done otherwise.

But Oxford Economic says this is all based on an assumption the “worst case scenario” will be avoided. So there is a risk of the economic damage turning out to be more severe.

 

What is the virus causing illness in Wuhan?

It is a member of the coronavirus family that has never been encountered before. Like other coronaviruses, it has come from animals. Many of those initially infected either worked or frequently shopped in the Huanan seafood wholesale market in the centre of the Chinese city, which also sold live and newly slaughtered animals.

Have there been other coronaviruses?

New and troubling viruses usually originate in animal hosts. Ebola and flu are other examples – severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome (Mers) are both caused by coronaviruses that came from animals. In 2002, Sars spread virtually unchecked to 37 countries, causing global panic, infecting more than 8,000 people and killing more than 750. Mers appears to be less easily passed from human to human, but has greater lethality, killing 35% of about 2,500 people who have been infected.

What are the symptoms caused by the Wuhan coronavirus?

The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. In severe cases there can be organ failure. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. The antiviral drugs we have against flu will not work. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get support for their lungs and other organs as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Many of those who have died were already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?

Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s national health commission, and there have been human-to-human transmissions in the US and in Germany. As of 6 February, China’s death toll grew to 563, with 28,018 confirmed cases. There remains one additional fatality in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. The mortality rate stands at 2.1%.

Two members of one family have been confirmed to have the virus in the UK, after more than 400 were tested and found negative. The Foreign Office has urged UK citizens to leave China if they can.

The number of people to have contracted the virus could be far higher, as people with mild symptoms may not have been detected. Modelling by World Health Organization (WHO) experts at Imperial College London suggests there could be as many as 100,000 cases, with uncertainty putting the margins between 30,000 and 200,000.

Why is this worse than normal influenza, and how worried are the experts?

We don’t yet know how dangerous the new coronavirus is, and we won’t know until more data comes in. The mortality rate is around 2%. However, this is likely to be an overestimate since many more people are likely to have been infected by the virus but not suffered severe enough symptoms to attend hospital, and so have not been counted. For comparison, seasonal flu typically has a mortality rate below 1% and is thought to cause about 400,000 deaths each year globally. Sars had a death rate of more than 10%.

 

Should I go to the doctor if I have a cough?

Unless you have recently travelled to China or been in contact with someone infected with the virus, then you should treat any cough or cold symptoms as normal. The NHS advises that people should call 111 instead of visiting the GP’s surgery as there is a risk they may infect others.

Is the outbreak a pandemic?

Health experts are starting to say it could become a pandemic, but right now it falls short of what the WHO would consider to be one. A pandemic, in WHO terms, is “the worldwide spread of a disease”. Coronavirus cases have been confirmed in about 25 countries outside China, but by no means in all 195 on the WHO’s list. It is also not spreading within those countries at the moment, except in a very few cases. By far the majority are travellers who picked up the virus in China.

Should we panic?

No. The spread of the virus outside China is worrying but not an unexpected development. The WHO has declared the outbreak to be a public health emergency of international concern, and says there is a “window of opportunity” to halt the spread of the disease. The key issues are how transmissible this new coronavirus is between people and what proportion become severely ill and end up in hospital. Often viruses that spread easily tend to have a milder impact.

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