Are we in the middle of the 21st century’s first pandemic? As the latest iteration of a Coronavirus outbreak (official name Covid-19) spreads its wings from the original transmission site in the city of Wuhan, China, more and more countries are reporting cases. At the latest count 88 had cases of infection. So though no one is saying it officially, Italy is in lockdown, with over 350 deaths and more than 10,000 of cases of infection while Iran has reported over 250 deaths and is trying to get a handle on the outbreak. The Middle East has reported cases from eight countries, and the frequency of travel across borders makes it especially vulnerable. South Korea has reported over 6000 cases, but this may be just the tip as most of the affected belong to a secretive Christian sect that is only now beginning to inform the health authorities. Japan has closed its schools and the UK may follow suit, as also other countries.

The US has just reported its 1,000th case of Covid-19 infection and many of the victims  have not travelled abroad, much less to China or its neighbours. India remains reassuringly free so far apart from the initial reports of Kerala residents returning from Wuhan. The official number has just crossed 50 but it is too early for complacency as thousands of Indians travel to and from the Gulf states every day. Maybe we’ve just been lucky so far. The situation in China, however, is dire. More than 3,500 people have died and the disease has affected over 80,000. An estimated 700 million citizens were in lockdown at one point. Schools are closed, thousands of factories are shut and public places in most cities, including public transport, shops, restaurants and malls deserted. The one piece of good news is that the number of new cases is starting to decline.

The Coronavirus is no stranger to human bodies, with two earlier versions causing havoc in 2003-2004 (the SARS epidemic killed over 750 people worldwide) and 2012 onwards (MERS has killed over 850 to date). The first originated in China and the second was initially identified in a patient in Saudi Arabia. They belong to a family of viruses that, like AIDS and Ebola in central Africa, crossed over from their natural animal reservoir to humans as a result of the consumption of exotic meat. For protein-starved central Africa it is an indispensable source, but China has an insatiable appetite for game, with hundreds of wet markets stocking and killing fruit bat, pangolin, peacock, snake, hedgehog and other jungle produce. An estimated 20,000 farms across the country raise these and other animals for the table. So Covid-19 was something just waiting to happen. All the conditions for onward transmission were present. The toll it has taken is also shockingly high.

The key factor was an initial cover-up by the Wuhan authorities as cases were reported from early November. City authorities and provincial bureaucrats remained in denial even as doctors issued repeated warnings. In a typical shoot-the-messenger response the doctors were forced to retract their warnings and apologise. It made no difference. The deaths began to pile up. Wuhan’s position as a major hub for transport and logistics to other parts of China provided a natural route for its radiation. The net result is a tragedy that could and should have been avoided. Chairman XI’s exemplary display of energy was a little too late to stop the epidemic. 

For the rest of the world the news comes as a shattering blow. China is the central to the supply chain of virtually every major economy, for everything from industrial machinery to construction materials to mobile phones. Apple has already announced a drop in its earnings as a result of the epidemic. Other major firms will no doubt join that queue. Major stock markets are shuddering at the news. The IMF expects global growth to be about 0.1 per cent lower but continuing uncertainties over how long China remains in lockdown could make that worse. There is little doubt that industrial production and GDP will suffer in a number of countries. The only question is how many. For China itself, IMF has lowered its forecast growth from 6.1 per cent to 5.6 per cent—the lowest in 30 years. How this affects commodity exporters for whom China is the major customer is not clear but the impact could be substantial, leading to recession-like conditions in some cases. 

The one major plus in this business is the speed and energy going into research for a vaccine. There are several promising approaches and something effective may emerge in the coming months. The best long-term course would, of course, be to avoid exotic meat altogether but that is like asking an addict to say no to drugs.