The ostrich approach to the epidemic: could it work?

A Chinese college student living with his family in Wuhan was unwell on January 17, became seriously ill by Jan. 21 and started feeling better after a life-threatening crisis on Jan. 26. He had been treated by doctors from a “pulmonary hospital,” but It was only on Jan. 28 that they told him that he was “qualified” for being tested for COVID-19.

His brother and grandmother fell ill after him, and have both recovered. The brothers both tested positive for the coronavirus, but their grandmother was never tested. This bit of anecdotal evidence shows once again that some COVID-19 cases have resolved themselves without being identified as coronavirus-related. It is likely that the fatality ratio will eventually prove lower than the currently available data suggests.

Even though this rate will probably remain much before that of the common seasonal flu, COVID-19 could eventually get “normalized” – that is, be treated as a dangerous but inevitable seasonal epidemic.

Russia is shaping up as an interesting case. The numbers it has reported so far – only six people sick with COVID-19 – are suspiciously low for a country doing lots of business both with China and the EU. Perhaps Russian health officials are deliberately under-testing the sick and/or underreporting test results. In the lead-up to the constitutional plebiscite scheduled for April 22, the Kremlin might want things to stay calm and appear under control.

Perhaps Russia would become a test case for the theory that a country can survive a coronavirus epidemic by ignoring it and can even end up better off than those paralyzing themselves with quarantines. (Better off by what measure, as usual, would be the central question in the debate.) But the downside risks to this approach are enormous.


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