With growing coronavirus outbreak, is China’s massive quarantine the right response?


JUDY WOODRUFF: The Chinese government is still
struggling to contain a coronavirus outbreak that’s killed at least 26 people and infected
over 900 more. Officials today expanded a travel ban to block
the movements of tens of millions in Central China. New cases have now appeared in Europe
and in six other countries, and a second U.S. case was confirmed today. William Brangham has the latest. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Hospitals in the city of
Wuhan, China, the center of this outbreak, are jammed to capacity. Medical teams are working overtime, dealing
with the rush of people, worried they’re infected with this new coronavirus. Hospitals here
have issued urgent pleas for additional help and supplies. With the official death toll doubling overnight,
and hundreds of new cases emerging, Chinese officials have now expanded their travel ban
beyond the 11 million in Wuhan into 12 surrounding towns. That’s about 35 million people, roughly
the population of Canada, on semi-lockdown. Council on Foreign Relations: Restricting
train and air travel. Thomas Bollyky is the director of the Global
Health Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “Plagues and the Paradox of
Progress.” THOMAS BOLLYKY, Council on Foreign Relations:
The history of these kinds of travel bans isn’t positive. Generally speaking, these
travel bans are seen as not that effective. What they often do is cause people not to
report their illness, and try to circumvent government and public health officials. And
that makes it more likely that the disease will spread. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Chinese state media released
this video of a massive hospital being built, claiming it’ll be up and running in a stunning
six days’ time. While Chinese health officials have shared
genetic and diagnostic information about this virus, the country’s response to the SARS
outbreak 17 years ago, when the true scale of the outbreak was hidden for months, leads
some to worry that Chinese officials still aren’t being fully transparent today. DR. HOWARD MARKEL, Director, Center for the
History of Medicine, University of Michigan: Concealment is an essential aspect of epidemics
of time immemorial. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Howard Markel is a medical
historian and author of, among other books, “Quarantine” and “When Germs Travel.” DR. HOWARD MARKEL: Most places don’t like
to admit they have a raging infection, largely because they fear a quarantine that would
close their port, would close their commerce, would — would close the flow of money. And, you know, the SARS epidemic, which wasn’t
even a major epidemic, cost the world economy at least $40 billion. So, we’re talking about
real dollars and cents. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The initial outbreak in
China has now spread to at least six other countries, including France and the U.S. The
Centers for Disease Control confirmed a second U.S. case today, a Chicago woman in her 60s
who’d recently traveled to Wuhan. A man in his 30s in Washington state is also infected,
but now stable. The CDC says they are investigating at least
63 others in 22 states. The five U.S. airports that are receiving people from affected regions
in China are now screening passengers for fevers. The two current U.S. cases arrived
before screenings were in place. As China continues to grapple with this outbreak,
major questions still need answering: Just how contagious is this virus, and how lethal? Howard Markel says, until those questions
are answered, banning travel for millions might be counterproductive to stop a virus
that spreads, but perhaps isn’t that deadly. DR. HOWARD MARKEL: I think the most concerning
thing is this massive quarantine of over 35 million people, the largest quarantine ever,
ever undertaken in human history. So, you wouldn’t use the atomic bomb of public
health tools, the quarantine, in the manner that China has done, for something that may
be quite contagious, that might spread, but doesn’t cause death. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Tom Bollyky says, this novel
virus in China is not yet cause for alarm for Americans. There are plenty of other viruses
right here to worry about. THOMAS BOLLYKY: We’re in the midst of a terrible
flu season. There is a vaccine that people can actually do something about, if you want. If viewers wanted to be nervous or scared
at home about how to protect themselves from diseases, this new novel virus is still pretty
far down the list in terms of what they should be doing something about. WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For the “PBS NewsHour,”
I’m William Brangham.

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