The false Western sense of superiority endangers people.
We now have publicly available data on covid-19 covering exactly a month (15 Feb-14 Mar), for China, data exist going back to January 22nd. I am not a virologist, but here are some common-sense thoughts about the numbers and about their broader political context. The false Western sense of superiority endangers people. If you live in a country that hesitated to react so far, (which you probably do), it’s time to step up the pressure on decisionmakers.
It’s been frightening to see the same reaction all over the West: “it’s a Chinese thing, we’re better,” “it’s an Italian thing, we’re better”… The West was completely taken aback and failed to learn from China, from Hong Kong, from South Korea: this is how the false Western sense of superiority endangers people. There are still several politicians who believe they are different, they have nothing to learn, that covid-19 is just a ‘foreign disease’.
Covid-19 has spread with a very similar rate in Europe and the US, and responses have been so far lagging behind East-Asian responses. South Korea started to see a decline 20 days after hitting the first 100 active cases, China 30 days after the first 500 cases. The rate of spread went down the single digits two weeks after the 500th case. Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other East Asian states are managing the virus apparently even better.
In contrast, Italy saw an average 36.5% daily increase in the first two weeks after the 100th case was discovered, Germany 37.7%, France 33%, Spain 39.7%, the US 34%; in the UK the growth rate has accelerated to 34% in the past three days. A decline is only in the distant future. It is highly unlikely that Europe will see a similar decline as China or South Korea with the current rate. Although responses have gotten stronger recently, there is still a long way to go in several countries.
Of course, we still know very little about this virus. There are enormous differences in the number of tests carried out by each country. China tested the most people (320,000 by 24 Feb), South Korea carried out almost 250,000 tests (13 Mar), followed by Italy (86,000 tests, 12 Mar). The US did 13,000, France 6,600. You get the picture. There are likely thousands of undetected cases already in each country. There are large differences in the number of deaths. A part of this is likely a result of age structure, for example, Italy – the country with the highest covid-19 related mortality so far – has one of the highest shares of the population above 80 in the world. Differences in health care capacities could also be related to the differences in death rates.
We also don’t know if there will be a second wave, which could hit first those countries that managed to curtail the first wave early and then go on to lift the restrictions on movement. Weather patterns – the arrival of warm weather in the northern hemisphere – could also influence the spread. This is a new pandemic, and we have to face it with little knowledge.
However, we do know that some interventions can slow down the spread. This is crucial to avoid unnecessary congestion in hospitals. The good news is that restrictions seem to have effect not only in East Asia. The rate of spread has been slightly decreasing in Italy for the last few days, which is likely still only the effect of measures enacted two weeks ago. The rate of spread in Italy is one of the lowest in Europe. The effect of the current lockdown might only be visible in 10 days or so.
Italy in fact responded early with some string measures that were overshadowed by the siloed spread of the virus in the background, which led to a rapid explosion. Lombardy closed down universities, schools and gyms before the end of February, with ‘only’ a few hundred cases nationwide, in addition to the quarantine in the Lodi area near to Milan in effect since 23 February.
With the recent exception of Spain, responses in the West have lagged behind not only Asia but also Italy. And Spain was also quite late to react, and the country saw one of the worst growth rates recently. However, Germany, Spain, France are only a week behind Italy, the US around 9 days behind, the UK less than two weeks behind, all producing frighteningly similar rates of spread, some even somewhat worse.
Fast forward a week or two: Hospitals will definitely get crowded; in Italy, they have started to move patients across the regions. This does not mean that the Italian health system has collapsed or doctors will have to leave patients in serious conditions untreated. But it means that health systems can reach their capacity very quickly, especially considering the multiple waves of neoliberal cuts that hit the health sector over the past decade in most countries.
My wife and I have been in the middle of a lock-down for quite some time: no need to be afraid of it. What you need to be afraid of is inaction induced by a false sense of Western superiority. You can live with the lockdown. Especially, if your government realises that they need to intervene to help those who lose their income: precarious workers in the service sector, in the shadow economy, freelancers with no insurance and reserves: they are the first who need financial help if the economy grinds to a halt. And it will.
If you have a chance to put pressure on your schools/communities/politicians then do it: no country is different, we’re all in this together, we have to learn from previous mistakes and good examples. Stay at home for a few weeks. You might even be surprised to learn how well your neighbour can sing from the balcony – that’s at least the experience of many people around Italy.
Originally published written on 15 March in Italy, published on 21 March on LeftEast.