COVID-19 Spread in China—Why Was It So Slow?

The way the virus outbreak developed in China has bothered me for many days. If COVID-19 is spread by close contact, China should have had an epidemic in every major city in China. It was at least two months before they started shutting things down. The fact, that they didn’t shut things down earlier means we are wrong about how COVID-19 is spread. I strongly believe that deaths from COVID-19 in the US will be fewer than 10,000 this year, so much fewer than this year’s flu season.

Cause and effect are really hard to distinguish at this point, but any theory about solutions must explain how events developed in China, where we have the longest history of the virus. China did not quickly go to social distancing. Reread that sentence. It was at least six weeks before they reacted, and probably longer. They initially tried to cover up the issue. Wuhan has a population of 8.6 million, so why wasn’t the rest of China overrun with the problem if the main transmission path is human to human? Basic network theory suggests that China should have had millions of cases, but they didn’t. It appears to me that basic sanitation practices are a much bigger factor than social distancing. Obviously, if no one interacts with anyone else, that will slow spread. But the difference between telling everyone to clean things thoroughly and encouraging everyone to stop activity and socially distance themselves is almost infinite.

Based on our broad reaction to the pandemic—potentially out of step with how the virus actually spreads—I believe that many small businesses will be crushed. Unless there is a dramatic turn in the next two weeks, small business bankruptcies will be off the charts. There is almost nothing we can do to stop that now that we are convinced social distancing is the only thing that can save us from the armageddon.

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