Lesson of the Day: ‘To Tame Coronavirus, Mao-Style Social Control Blankets China’


How contagious is the coronavirus? How deadly is it?


Scientists have been working hard to determine the infection and fatality rates of the coronavirus. This information will draw a clearer picture of how the pathogen behaves and how and whether it can be contained.

The graph above shows how the new coronavirus compares with other infectious diseases. It uses a log scale, the same type of scale used for measuring earthquakes, where an increase of 1 on the log scale represents a 10-fold increase in the original scale. Data near the top is compressed into a smaller space to make the variation between less-deadly diseases easier to see. Diseases near the top of the chart are much deadlier than those in the middle.

After looking closely at the graph (here it is at full size), consider these three questions:

  • What do you notice? If you make a claim, tell us what you noticed that supports your claim.

  • What do you wonder? What are you curious about that comes from what you notice in the graph?

If you’re interested in exploring this graph further, join this week’s What’s Going On in This Graph? conversation and the moderated discussion with our collaborator, the American Statistical Association, on Wednesday, Feb. 26, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern time.

2) Make an argument about China’s efforts to battle the coronavirus outbreak.

Do you think the quarantines imposed on Wuhan and other towns and cities in China are effective or ethical?

In an Opinion essay, “Will the Largest Quarantine in History Just Make Things Worse?,” Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine, writes:

Zhong Nanshan, of China’s National Health Commission, is reported to have said that the most effective way to stop the virus, which appears to be spread by droplets, was a quarantine.

Is it, though?

In Wuhan, a city of 11 million, both patients who believe they have been infected by the coronavirus and people with other medical problems are having difficulty seeing doctors: Shortages are common at such times, and quarantines only compound them. Residents are complaining on social media about inadequate care. Distrust of the health authorities is mounting.

And then, of course, overcrowding at hospitals, which mixes some presumably sick people with the healthy, increases the risks of transmission.

Some people may have tried to escape the stricken cities for less-infected areas. Others may be hiding from public health workers. A woman from Wuhan, apparently eager to stick to her travel plans for Lunar New Year, reportedly cheated a health check by taking fever-reducing drugs to bring her temperature down — and then admitted doing so on social media after she had arrived in France.

An integral failing of most quarantines is that some people, seeing the restrictions as overly strict and an imposition on their rights, will invariably try to bypass them. Their evasion, in turn, can endanger public health.

So, do quarantines contain a disease or might they actually contribute to spreading it?

What do you think? Are the quarantines and other aggressive measures to combat the spread of the virus ethical and effective? If you were a resident of Wuhan do you think you would accept the aggressive measures as necessary or would you see them as an oppressive infringement on your liberty? Do you think a campaign of Mao-style social control would work in the United States if an outbreak were to occur?

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