The novel coronavirus (NCV), the new epidemic that has been causing concern world-wide, was first reported by China to the World health Organisation (WHO) on the last day of the last year, occurred in Wuhan, a city of 11 million people in Hubei province.
Experts fear that this epidemic could cost the global economy more than one trillion dollars in lost output if it turns into a pandemic. They also warn that the spread of the virus to regions outside Asia would knock 1.3% off global growth this year, the equivalent of 1.1 trillion dollars in lost income.
The virus was already having a ‘chilling effect’ with the factory closures in China spilling over to neighbouring countries as major companies struggle to source components and finished goods from the Far East.
The first death was announced early in January while the first cases of SARS, on the other hand, were reported from Guangdong province in China in 2003, but that did not create the kind of concern as now.
China has put up a brave face and announced that there is a big drop in new cases arriving raising the hope that the epidemic might have reached its peak. US President Donald Trump has also expressed confidence that China is ‘trying very hard’ in its handling of the epidemic. ‘I am confident they are trying very hard,’ he said. ‘I am confident the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along.’
Electronic and automobile companies have been the most worried and Apple had hinted to investors they would be unable to meet quarterly targets because of the ‘temporarily constrained’ supply of iPhones and a dramatic fall in the Chinese spending due to the crisis.
Equally worried is the automobile behemoth Jaguar Land Rover which said it would run out of car parts at its factories in Britain if the virus continues to prevent parts from arriving from China and cause a supply problem.
Economists also fear that China’s GDP growth is likely to fall from 6% last year to 5.4% in 2020 following the spread of the virus. But if it spreads more widely in Asia, world GDP, they fear, would fall by 400 b dollars in 2020, or 0.5%.
If it spreads beyond Asia and becomes a global pandemic, the world GDP would drop 1.1 trillion dollars, or 1.3% compared to the current projection. A 1.1 trillion dollar decline would be the same as losing the entire annual output of Indonesia.
Analysts see a ray of hope and believe India could stand to benefit over the longer term as companies look at setting up alternative manufacturing base, though in the short-term there could be some supply-chain disruptions.
They have pegged at the total imports from China in 2018-19 (FY 19) at 70.4 billion dollars and a plunge in this import basket suggests that Indian pharma, chemicals and electronic companies could see a disruption in the supply chain. Apart from that metals, and upstream and downstream oil companies, will witness the impact of lower global demand impacting commodity prices.
Companies like Dixon Technologies, Havells India, Voltas and Cipla could face issues in case the virus threat does not subside while any shift in global supply away from China, it believes, could see some benefits for India and garment and textile exporters could expect busier order books in the short-term.
These worst-case scenarios of GDP plunge, these experts believe, are the result of discretionary consumption worldwide and travel and tourism and the effects of knock-on financial markets and weaker investment. One instance of the ‘discretionary’ excess has been the plight of travelers on the huge luxury liner Diamond Princess, moored in Yokohama in Japan, has been described as the biggest coronavirus cluster outside the Chinese epicentre with 620 positive cases among passengers and crew. A Japanese couple in their eighties who were on board had been the country’s first casualties. As more passengers disembarked from the ship after testing negative and not showing any symptoms during the 14-day quarantine period, and were packed into yellow buses and were leaving for airports and rail stations, panic spread and questions were being asked about their freely moving in the city.
The first fatalities from the Middle East had been reported with two deaths coming from Iran.
China had assured the outside world about the containment efforts they had mounted with the quarantining of tens of millions of people in Hubei and restricting the movements in other cities and that these had started paying off, the Chinese Foreign Minister assured the South Eastern counterparts in Laos. He said Wuhan was still severely affected but ‘the situation is under effective control while other regions are embracing comforting news.’ And while cities far from the epicentre have limited number of people Wuhan, a city of 11 million, has been under quarantine and quickly locked down the rest of Hubei. Even in the other cities only a limited number of people can leave their homes for groceries while villages have sealed themselves off from outsiders.
It was in this almost ghost city that an Air India airliner touched down bringing medicines and for taking back the Indians stranded there. The crew and the medical personnel on board, most of them doctors and nurses from Delhi’s Government Safdarjung and Lohia Hospitals had done their homework on how to handle the patients who were being transported. Arrangements had also been made at Manesar and the ITBP stations for their stay during the quarantine period.
These operations and gestures had not gone unnoticed and the Chinese Ambassador to India, Sun Weidong, thanked the country for the help ‘during these difficult times.’ He was deeply touched by the kindness of Indian friends and these reminded him of the time when Dr. Kotnis saved the lives of many people and made a great contribution to the Chinese people’s liberation cause. The Maharashtra doctor Dwarakanath Kotnis had gone to China during the Japanese invasion in 1939 and died there in 1942 while treating wounded Chinese soldiers. The Chinese still revere him and every Chinese leader who visits this country makes it a point to visit the Kotnis family in Mumbai.
The Chinese envoy also did not forget to recall the help India rendered during the Severe Acute Respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in China in 2003. He recalled receiving the Indian Minister George Fernandes who had visited Shanghai during the epidemic. He also recalled the letter Prime Minister Modi had sent to Xi Jinping to condole the deaths and offering any help they needed.
Sun disclosed that India and China have been actively collaborating on the epidemic control and prevention. ‘We keep India informed and updated on the epidemic, provide necessary assistance and convenience for the return of Indian citizens in Hubei.’
Meanwhile, leading experts have signed a statement supporting their Chinese counterparts, as the latter are being attacked on the social media as rumours circulate about the origins of the virus, putting at risk the open and transparent relations between the Chinese and foreign experts on aspects like sharing of data and search for vaccines and treatments.
An eminent public health scientist, Peter Daszak, who is also president of EcoHealth Alliance,said, ‘We work very closely with the Chinese scientists. We have had incredible openness with the labs in China for the last 15 years, since SARS. We collaborate on what are dangerous viruses and get incredible information that helps public health around the world. That is all under threat right now.’
He said Chinese scientists and their families have been abused on social media and threatened with violence and they were saying ‘we are not going to talk, because every time we speak we get criticised and threatened.’
There are also conspiracy theories being circulated that the coronavirus was artificially manufactured in a lab conducting bio-weapons research. These are ‘crackpot theories that need to be addressed, but in the age of social media it is just impossible,’ lamented Daszak. Just as with the conspiracy theories around MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccination those circulating these are also their echo chambers.
The 2019 coronavirus may have originated in bats but there could be an ‘intermediate host’ in transmission to humans. Just as SARS is believed to have spread from civet cats, small, nocturnal mammals native to tropical Asia and Africa. Both SARS and coronavirus usually spread through close contact.
‘The rapid, open, and transparent sharing of data on this outbreak is now being threatened by rumours and misinformation around its origins. We stand together to strongly condemn conspiracy theories suggesting that Covid-19 does not have a natural origin. Scientists from multiple countries have published and analysed genomes of the causative agent, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (Sars-CoV-2) and they overwhelmingly conclude that this coronavirus originated in wildlife, as have so many other emerging pathogens,’ says their statement.