Medical experts are ransacking the inventory of new variants to explain India’s hellish Covid explosion, but they aren’t likely to find out much they didn’t know at the time of Wuhan more than a year ago.
Covid is a highly transmissible infection; it’s substantially novel to human immune systems and provokes severe symptoms in some cases; with enough cases hitting at the same time, hospital systems are likely to be overwhelmed in direct measure to their pre-existing capacity or lack thereof.
Lockdown squabbles in the West have tended to blind us to important truths. Lockdowns are not synonymous with social distancing; importantly, the incentive of people to change their habits varies with socioeconomic condition. Western populations discovered they could reduce their contacts quite dramatically with little real effort—work at home, order from Amazon. Employers found it realistic to install Plexiglas, distribute masks, modify ventilation systems. Governments could prop up the incomes of their citizens for a year or two by printing money without untidy spillovers.
This is not true of a demographic phenomenon like India, which quickly learned that a three-week shutdown posed more of a threat to many citizens’ personal survival than Covid did. After a few months, let’s also admit, certain types of human intimacy that seem dispensable in the short term stop seeming so, especially to low-risk young people.
Because of its regime-shaking potential, public utterances about Covid tend to be shaded for political effect.
gets grief for it in the U.S. but has been more honest than many about his occasional dishonesties.
I previously congratulated India’s media for not participating in the “confirmed cases” mythology so prevalent in the West. Even today, the U.S. press cites India’s official count of 380,000 new cases a day and notes the Trump-reproving fact that this means India is approaching the U.S. total. Uh huh. With thousands of Indians dying for want of hospital oxygen, with its crematoria unable to keep up, a reader not wishing to reside in la-la land might want to know that realistic modeling indicates India’s true daily new infection rate exceeds 13 million.
A mythologizing mood is also why new variants, including the scary-sounding “double mutant,” feature so prominently in Western accounts. Viruses mutate, yes—some 300,000 distinct Covid-causing strains are estimated to exist. The flu also mutates. Focusing on mutations apparently is less unsettling than acknowledging a truth: For billions of humans, Covid is less dangerous than the actions we urge on them to stop its spread, many of which aren’t realistically sustainable for the periods they would need to be sustained by the people who would need to sustain them.
In December, a New Yorker article by the Indian-born doctor, biologist and writer
told of an elderly man in Kolkata, one of the densest cities on earth, who brushed off a mild case of Covid. Dr. Mukherjee went on to ponder various theories for why India hadn’t been more badly affected: a youngish population, pre-existing immunities, inadequate death records. But a likely explanation is that it simply takes time for a virus to get around a country as big as India and for the temporary measures that once impeded its spread to run out of gas. A virus that left one elderly man mildly inconvenienced, once it starts infecting millions a day, can be a tidal wave though severe cases remain a tiny fraction of those infected.
This lesson is recurring: We’ve always had less of a handle on Covid than we like to think until it explodes on a local hospital system. Which brings us back to the place it started, China, whose story is far from over however much our shortsighted press wants to believe otherwise.
Vaccine data (likely reliable for a change) show that 1.18 billion Chinese have yet to receive a single dose. China, with its vast agglomerations of urban poverty, is a lot closer socioeconomically and demographically to India than to the U.S. or Europe, except in one respect: The average age in India is 27; in China, it’s a U.S.-like 37. A study shortly after Wuhan estimated that outbreaks in the 28 biggest U.S. cities would require 26 ICU beds per 100,000 people—a figure that most Western societies, including the U.S., already met. In China, the number of ICU beds per 100,000 was 3.6 at the start of 2020; in India, it was 2.3.
China also has advantages: huge financial reserves and a degree of regime competence that India lacks, plus better-controlled borders. But China’s desperate fight to keep Covid out of its sprawling urban populations is likely not a one- or two-year fight as it builds up its healthcare capacity and vaccinates a billion citizens. It’s a fight that may last half a decade or more and whose success is far from assured.
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