Coronavirus: it’s just the flu, right – so why has China shut down their country?

I re-posted the informative ‘What we know now about Coronavirus‘ summary article from SFcrowsnest on my Facebook page, recently, and subsequently got snowed by comments along the lines of “Pah, it’s just like the flu/cold, right? Nobody worries about that.”

Which rather begs the questions, then why has China more or less shut down their entire country, and why are increasing numbers of nations halting all flights in and out of the country – not to mention diverting the rescue evac flights of citizens into quarantine zones at army bases? (a wise precaution: three of the Japanese citizens evacuated on the last rescue flight to Tokyo have tested positive with the virus).

I would be really, really happy to be proved wrong on this, but the basic math behind Coronavirus is not looking promising. My one caveat is that most the underlying stats are provided by the Chinese government, and, given this is still early days, are subject to change (caution: the smart money is on the fact that China is probably underplaying its health stats in the cause of domestic social harmony – and retrospective revisions are likely to be deeply upward).

Here are the basics:

  • The virus can be passed on between 3-14 days before symptoms show, making it very easy to spread (so all those temperature gun checks at airports are ineffective as a way of screening out carriers).
  • Unlike normal flu, Coronavirus seems to be an equal-opportunity infection – it’s not just the usual suspects, elderly and babies, catching it (those with weak immune systems) … it’s hitting 20 years olds, and even younger doctors in hazmat gear working with the sick, who just let their guard down once. Basically, it transmits as easily as the common cold. But it ain’t, because …
  • Of those infected with Coronavirus, China says 20% go on to develop serious complications – pneumonia – requiring an ICU unit bed. Most countries have a limited number of these beds in hospitals, which is why China is now crash building a series of new hospitals in three days containing 100% ICU wards (a seriously impressive construction feat). Fairly sure in the UK we’ll all be infected in the planning permission stage if we tried to go down this rapid building route. “And, excuse me, have you done the Pigeon Impact Assessment Report, yet?” I guess being a one-party state that regularly executes citizens, and whose word is the Word of God, has its advantages in edge-case situations.
  • The initial claimed death rate of those infected is officially reported by China to be 3%. Now, one thing we do know from the West’s current truthful medical stats is that the fatality rate from those infected by normal flu who go on to develop pneumonia is between 5-10% in a standard ward, and up to 30% when a pneumonia patient is finally admitted to intensive care. The WHO reckons that in terms of infected patient experience, the Coronavirus symptoms – and how crap you feel – are about three times worse than standard flu which we possess some immunity from. If you are left scratching your head about a ‘mere’ official Chinese 3% fatality rate, then join the rest of the world scientific community [see the Tencent update at the bottom of the article].
  • So, a potential bad-case scenario number is that if Coronavirus swept your country, 20% of those infected could end up in an ICU, and 30% of that 20% could die – right up until your health system runs out of ICU beds and doctors, and then the question – to which we have no current realistic answer – becomes, how many of that 20% would survive with little or no treatment available? To put this in historical context, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, infected about one-third of the planet’s population and killed an estimated 50 million people.
  • If you don’t get struck down with pneumonia as a result of this, then one of the patients with Coronavirus’s experience resembled a nasty normal flu – they had a four day incubation period after infection, followed by two days in bed with a high fever of 39.1 degrees Centigrade or 102.4 degrees Fahrenheit, then a recovery back to normal (normal medical advice is, I think, go to a doctor/hospital if you have an adult fever of 39.4 C or 103 F).
  • Here are some 2017 stats from the Kings Fund research paper into NHS strategy – the total number of NHS hospital beds in England has more than halved over the past 30 years, from around 299,000 to 142,000. The UK currently has fewer acute beds relative to its population than any other comparable health system. In 2016/17, overnight general and acute bed occupancy averaged 90.3 per cent, and regularly exceeded 95 per cent in winter. Basically, if you’re planning to catch Coronavirus in the UK, best do it early, while there are still a few NHS ICU unit places available.

Looking at these numbers, anyone who doesn’t understand why most of China now resemble scenes from science films such as Contagion or Outbreak (complete with Walking Dead-style citizen militias guarding illegal checkpoints into their bricked-off village), and why your government is slowly locking down incoming international flights, needs to re-sit their High School maths class which covered the concept of compounding – or probability, SIR models, epidemiological parameters and R(0) for you undergraduates.

Here are a few useful tips from a proper doctor to help keep yourself virus-free, this Winter.

Beyond this, let’s just hope that China can contain the outbreak internally, with other nations locating and quarantining sick people fast enough that we don’t get into ‘shutting down most cities with everyone staying at home’-territory … until a proven vaccine is developed. This is being done with some real ^%%^^&ing urgency, as you might expect (yep, scientists understand the numbers above) … here’s some better news on this ongoing scientific fightback:

I’ve seen some extreme green online commentary along the lines of, (a) our human footprint on the Earth is far too large and this kind of outbreak is nature’s way of culling the herd, so (b) if two out of ten of us do die, that is simply Gaia at work.

Hmmmm? Your mileage on how you feel about that idea will depend greatly as to whether you or your family and friends are the ones at the shitty end of the culling stick.

Stay safe out there, my loves.

Coronavirus: it's just the flu, right - why has China shut down their country?
Coronavirus: it’s just the flu, right – why has China shut down their country?

Here are a couple of recent updates to the above from the 2nd Feb 2020, one the voice of reason, the other a bit more ‘prepper’ …

One interesting twist is that China’s second largest company, Tencent (think China’s Amazon), launched an online Epidemic Situation Tracker, which on the 2nd January showed 154,023 were infected and 24,589 dead … a 16% mortality rate of those infected, which better tallies with the leaked pictures of shuttle buses running loaded with full bodybags and Wuhan’s funeral homes furnaces being run 24×7 rather than their licensed 2 hours per day. When the government realised this “error”, Tencent were ordered to take those figures down and replace it with the official mandated figures, instead (Tencent’s estimated death rate was 80 times more than the government’s claimed stats).


I am an author of various fantasy, science fiction, crime and other genre books from Gollancz, Hachette and HarperCollins. Some day I hope to grow up and be an astronaut. Exploring Mars would be nice.

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