It’s Everywhere Now — COVID-19 A Global Viral Wildfire

It moved like a fire.

First flickering in China during December.

There it evaded detection early-on. The Chinese government demurring to provide reports on the virus for crucial days. Then it grew and grew. Expanding to the point that it raged to terrifying size in China during January and February.  Evoking a sudden, serious and locally effective lock-down even as the Chinese government coordinated with world health bodies on what had now become a large and deadly-serious threat to both national and global security.

COVID-19 Leaps China’s Fire Break

China and world health bodies built up a kind of infectious disease fire break meant to contain the new virus. By the end of February, China’s own initial case numbers had rocketed to just below 80,000. The largest novel infectious disease outbreak of its kind in at least three decades. But the viral fire wasn’t finished. In fact, it was just getting started.

Fort McMurray Wildfire

Like wildfires, viruses can rage out of control once they escape containment — forcing large-scale mitigation to save lives. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened in the case of COVID-19. Above image is of the climate crisis worsened Fort McMurray wildfire of 2016. Image source: Government of Alberta.

Like a climate crisis amplified blaze, the initial outbreak size was immense. It cast highly infectious sparks in all directions. It presented a much greater opportunity for infection spread than the first SARS outbreak in 2002-2003, than subsequent MERS outbreaks, or during the Ebola outbreak. Even in the best of circumstances, the viral fire had become so large that it would have been difficult to fight from mid-February onward.

Multiple Conflagrations During February and March

Tightly packed ships, travelers on airlines, persons in large gatherings became super spreaders of the new viral fire. South Korea, then Iran, then Italy saw large outbreaks in February through early March. But smaller numbers bearing viral fire were moving elsewhere. And if containment mostly succeeded after a hard fight in the areas that were diligent, and ready, and equipped and lucky, it failed in places where leaders were lackadaisical or too slow, or who brutishly suppressed inconvenient information and science, or who were overconfident and didn’t take the threat seriously, or who lacked or sabotaged response and containment capability, or who were just unlucky.

The viral fire was canny. It found weaknesses. It mercilessly exploited them. It spread rapidly through these weak points to other regions. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a global pandemic. By the end of March worldwide cases had expanded to more than ten times China’s initial load — hitting just over 860,000 by the last day of March. The illness’s capacity to spread had expanded by an order of magnitude. Even more grim, the loss of souls was beginning to mount as well — with deaths from the virus rising to 43,000 by this time.

Running Toward the Flames — U.S. Outbreak Becomes Largest in the World

But despite its vicious pace of expansion, overconfidence still appeared to sway many right-wing heads of state, media personalities, and government leaders. Downplaying of the viral threat was still prevalent through mid-March and even as shut-downs began to take hold some were already calling it an over-reaction. Others showed an amazing insane propensity to run toward the viral fire or urge their followers to do the same. Trump and fellows on the right in the U.S. peddled the false hope of silver bullet treatments like chloroquine putting many people at increased risk of deadly health complications like cardiac arrest. Politicians like Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, who wore a gas mask to mock a COVID-19 vote in Congress, and British Prime Minister Borris Johnson would show cavalier attitudes toward social distancing — later coming down with the infection. In the case of Johnson, his battle with COVID-19 would go critical — putting him in the emergency room for the fight of his life.

global distribution of cases

Visual of global distribution of COVID-19 cases on April 24, 2020. Note that U.S. case numbers are the highest of any nation. This is true for mortality numbers as well. Image source: Worldometers.

So overconfidence itself became one of the biggest weak points for the viral fire to exploit. For the United States, the overconfidence would prove crucial as a containment failure there allowed the viral fire to explode into the largest national outbreak anywhere. Presenting serious risks both to U.S. and global citizens. In March and April, a rapid U.S. spread would ultimately result in about a million cases in the U.S. alone (as of this writing, on April 23rd, the U.S. total is 850,000 with the growth ranging between 25,000 and 30,000 cases per day). About one in every four hundred U.S. citizens would become hosts to the viral wildfire before May. The toll in lives would be serious — approaching 60,000 by April’s end for the U.S. alone (more than 48,000 U.S. deaths on April 23rd with between 1,100 and 2,700 more deaths each day). This as governors like Georgia’s Brian Kemp unwisely sought to relax stay at home policies early against the advice of health experts as daily infection rates were still near peak levels. The failures of overconfidence and not listening to experts being a hard lesson to unlearn for many — particularly those on the political right. Overall, the United States’ outbreak would be the largest first wave event anywhere on the globe — surpassing China’s initial explosion by more than an order of magnitude.

Large Viral Fires Everywhere — Including Hot Brazil

The story was similar in Europe where states like the, at first lackadaisical under Borris Johnson, U.K. and a seemingly unlucky Spain and France would see massive outbreaks to add to Italy’s major event. Germany would experience its own major outbreak. But containment efforts for that state would prove more diligent and effective. Total cases in these five countries would roughly equal that of the U.S. by the end of April — adding almost another million (also at about 850,000 on April 23rd but growing at around 15,000 cases per day which is considerably slower than the U.S. growth rate).

Large outbreaks in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Brazil would further feed into the global conflagration as May approached. With these four countries hosting about 210,000 cases as of April 23rd, but growing at a rate of about 12,000 cases per day combined. Brazil’s own large outbreak of about 46,000 by April 23rd also carried with it a warning. Spokespersons on COVID-19 have often assumed that it, like the flu, maintained a seasonal nature in which infection spread more rapidly at cold times of year, but that hot times would prove protective. The virus’s response to temperature may well be more complex and nuanced. Repeatedly, experts have cautioned that COVID-19 cold weather prevalence assertions are somewhat dubious and unproven. Notably the virus emerged from tropical and subtropical environments. So hot weather may have a limited ability to curtail infection rates. And Brazil’s own large outbreak has occurred in a hot weather region during a hot time of year. Showing that the virus is capable of rapid spread during hot, summer-like conditions.

Global COVID-19 case and death totals

By April 23rd, global case numbers and deaths continued to increase on at a steep rate with little sign of abatement. More than 185 nations had seen COVID-19 cases and the likelihood of subsequent viral waves remained high. Image source: Worldometers.

Including all outbreaks, by mid-to-late April, the fire had taken in 213 countries, areas and territories. On April 23rd, about two million, seven hundred thousand people had been infected across the globe. The case rate was growing by about 80,000 each day (2.4 million per month). And of those confirmed with infection, about 190,000 or seven percent had died. A grim tally that continued to swell by 5,000 to 8,000 each day. Showing the world would likely see a quarter million lost from the virus by some time in early May.

More Waves Could Follow

COVID-19 had defied expectation both for its ability to spread and for its apparent lethality. A disease capable of super-spread that is at present apparently seventy times more deadly than the seasonal flu among detected cases (See John’s Hopkins data on case fatality for individual countries here).  Something that given present data is potentially capable of producing a global impact that is the worst seen from an infectious illness outbreak since the deadly flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 if it breaks out more fully. This all just as the first wave of viral fire is passing over the globe. And until a cure or a very effective treatment is found, the virus now exists in a high enough global density to produce multiple subsequent waves of infection even if the first wave is abated (it presently is ongoing). A virus that appears to be capable of defying the conventional understanding of seasonality. And one that is extraordinarily transmissible and tricky to contain.

(UPDATED)

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