Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. The Staggers
23 January 2020

Evening Call: How worried should we be by the Chinese coronavirus?

The World Health Organisation will likely declare an international public health emergency this evening.

By Jonn Elledge

So far this year we’ve had the world come close to war, because of strained relations – for want of a better euphemism – between the US and Iran. We’ve seen dozens of people and possibly as many as a billion animals die due to the record-breaking Australian bushfire season, attributed in no small way to climate change. And now, before January is even over, we have a new terrifying global crisis galloping over the horizon.

A quick primer in case you’ve been ignoring this one, on the not unreasonable grounds that you can’t do anything about it and have better things to do than to watch news reports that feel uncomfortably like the opening credits of Terry Nation’s Survivors. A nasty new coronavirus – the same type of virus that gave us the Sars and Mers epidemics earlier this century – has emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, possibly from a seafood market at its centre. The virus causes pneumonia and being viral rather than bacterial in origin, can’t be stopped by antibiotics.

As of today, the Chinese authorities have acknowledged 517 cases and 18 deaths. It’s now passing from person to person, and cases have been confirmed in 13 Chinese provinces, in several neighbouring countries and in the US. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier told parliament that there was an “increased likelihood” that cases would emerge here, adding that the country was “well prepared and well equipped to deal with them”. Which is good news, given that four people are currently being tested in Scotland after showing symptoms of the virus.

“Should we panic?” reads the last question in the Guardian’s excellent primer on the crisis. Reassuringly, the next word is “No”, although it adds that the World Health Organisation (WHO) will likely declare an international public health emergency this evening.

It’s worth noting, though, that those earlier epidemics mentioned above had a death toll of well under 1,000 each. And yesterday’s write-up of the news by science writer Tom Chivers carried the comforting headline, “China’s coronavirus will not be the next Black Death”. He argues that the WHO is much better at containing this stuff than it once was.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

One place where people are panicking, however, is in Wuhan itself. The authorities in the city, which has a population bigger than London, have shut down the public transport network and closed all routes out of the city, and reports tell of empty supermarket shelves as the locals are buying up supplies and locking themselves into their homes. We probably aren’t all going to die, quite yet. But that doesn’t make the news any less frightening.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

If you want to read more on this topic, for some reason, here’s a great piece by Michael Barrett of the University of Glasgow.

Good day for…

Fans of US political drama, as Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings have moved onto the Senate. The chamber, dominated by the president’s own Republican Party, seems highly unlikely to convict – but the Democrats could still make hay from the affair. Nicky reports here.

Bad day for…

Logic at the BBC. The broadcaster is scrapping the popular Victoria Derbyshire show – but even more baffling thing than the decision itself is the way it’s reporting it. To quote our Media Mole: “BBC breaks BBC Victoria Derbyshire story with BBC reporter quoting BBC media editor.” How very BBC of it.

Quote of the day

“His premiership has been less of a dragon’s roar, and more of an owl’s hoot.”

Writer Martha O’Neil on the record thus far of the Welsh First Minister, Labour’s Mark Drakeford. The party is still stronger in Wales than in any of the other UK nations – but it’s increasingly confined to the cities of the south. Here’s her piece.

Everybody’s talking about…

The Labour to Tory voters in the Midlands and the north that swung last month’s election so convincingly for Boris Johnson. In his latest magazine column, Stephen argues that hanging on to those voters may be easier than the Tories think: all they want is a better-kept high street.

Everybody should be talking about…

The mind-blowing fact that a virtual pandemic killed vast numbers of people in the game World of Warcraft over a week in September 2005. Apparently, players reacted in a range of ways so similar to people faced with real pandemics – some hid, some helped, some deliberately spread the virus as a form of terrorism – that the incident has been extensively studied by epidemiologists. The Wikipedia page makes quite a read. (Hat tip: That man Tom Chivers again.)


Questions? Comments? Drop me an email.

And now, a message from our events team:

The New Statesman’s Northern Powerhouse Conference returns on the 27th February 2020, with a day of insight on the future of the North. Join leading political and business proponents of the Northern Powerhouse strategy, to explore the key themes of: green growth; investment in northern business, infrastructure, and transport; sport; media; and the rebalancing of the economy in the North. Invited speakers include Jake Berry, Steve Rotheram, Sir Richard Leese, Dan Jarvis and Lisa Nandy. Tickets are available here.

Evening Call is a free newsletter published every day at 5pm. You can sign up here.