Coronavirus Gets Real, And The Global Economy Reacts

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A television screen headlines trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (Richard Drew/AP Photo)
A television screen headlines trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Monday, Jan. 27, 2020. (Richard Drew/AP Photo)

As coronavirus continues to spread in the United States, we’ll ask if there are lessons to be learned from pandemics of the past, and take a look at the impact this pandemic is having on the global economy.


Dr. Celine Gounder, internist, infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist. Co-host and producer of the podcasts "American Diagnosis" and "Epidemic," which focus on the coronavirus pandemic. Volunteer aid worker in Guinea during the Ebola outbreak. (@celinegounder)

Gillian Tett, chair of the editorial board and U.S. editor-at-large for the Financial Times. (@gilliantett)

Your Coronavirus Questions, Answered

Worries about coronavirus abound as the disease continues to spread around the world and the number of U.S. cases climbs steadily upward. Panicked shoppers are buying out stores’ entire stock of surgical masks and panic-purchasing hand sanitizer in bulk. People are anxiously confronting habits and behaviors that would normally go unnoticed, like shaking hands and touching their faces; and school districts are preparing for the possibility of widespread closures in the event that the outbreak hits home.

The global economy, reacting to this panic, is also on edge. The stock market has been volatile since the disease spread outside of China, hitting its lowest point since the 2008 financial crisis on Friday. On Tuesday, the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates by half a percentage point in a move intended to calm investors and stabilize the market. Despite the emergency cut, stocks plummeted a few hours later.

Is all this fear justified? Just how serious is the coronavirus outbreak? What should you do to protect yourself from contracting it? And what should you do if you think you might have it? Dr. Celine Gounder addresses these burning questions and more.

Should you be afraid of coronavirus?

“I think we should be concerned. I think we should be cautious and take precautions to protect ourselves. I don't think we should be afraid. I think when you let fear take over — one, I don't think it's really the appropriate emotion to have in response to this right now. But secondly, it leads to really poor decision making. And it can lead to everything from unscientific policies that actually lead to more transmission, to stigmatizing people and harming people in that way.”

Is coronavirus deadly?

“People keep asking me, 'What's the prevalence, what's the case fatality rate?' And those numbers are shifting because we're getting better, more complete data. We're getting data from different places. So, you know, the data from South Korea and Italy, for example, may be a little bit more applicable to our setting than what was happening in Wuhan or Iran. I think, big picture, this is probably going to be somewhere less severe than something like the 2% case fatality rate that you saw with 1918 Spanish flu. But it will be more severe than the seasonal flu. It'll be somewhere in between. And again, the key populations who have to worry are people who are elderly, especially in their 70s and 80s; people who have chronic medical diseases; and health care workers, because they're going to be caring for those patients.”

Should I wear a mask to protect myself while in public?

“There's two different kinds of masks. You have the surgical masks, which are really meant to be put on people with symptoms. So the idea being that they trap the droplets that you spray when you cough, when you sneeze, when you talk, they're actually trapping those droplets inside the mask so that they're not getting into the general atmosphere around you. So there's that kind of mask. So if you're sick, yeah, you should wear those. And then if you are a health care worker or somebody who's having close contact caring for somebody, then you would wear what's called an N-95 mask. … But there's really no indication to wear one of those if you're just trying to protect yourself against routine contact with people."

Could a proliferation of surgical masks contribute to an inflated sense of panic?

“I think some of that is cultural. So if you go someplace like China or India, a lot of people wear masks routinely because of the pollution.And actually, they are more accustomed to wearing masks to prevent transmission of disease if they have symptoms. So they are more used to those practices, whereas here, if you were to wear a mask on a plane or at the office — you know, I heard about somebody at one of the offices a friend of mine works at, and everybody was afraid that this person came into work wearing a mask. So I think it really can create a lot of fear.”

Should I be stocking up on hand sanitizer, or stick to hand-washing?

"I'd say they're pretty equivalent for most things. For most things, if you don't have visible body fluid on your hands or whatever the surface is, an alcohol hand sanitizer is fine. And a lot of it really comes down more to technique. So making sure you're hitting all the surfaces on your hands. You know, between the thumb and index finger, between all the fingers, the base of your hand, the back of your hand, under your nails. The technique and the duration is really what's important."

Do I need to stop touching my face?

“I think that's good advice, period ... I mean, it is how we end up with the common cold as well, and the flu. And so I think it's not a bad thing to try to break out of that habit. I think this is an opportunity for us to reevaluate other just cultural behaviors like shaking hands. You know, that's probably not the most sanitary thing to be doing, especially when we know people, when they go to the bathroom, like 60 to 70% of people wash their hands. That means 30 to 40% don't. And so, you know, I think it might be a good thing to sort of reevaluate some of these things.”

How should parents or family members talk to kids about coronavirus?

"I think I’d focus on the hand-washing. And also just say, look, this isn't about kids. This is about grandma, grandpa, and we want to keep them safe, and how can we care for them by washing our hands? I think that's where I would put the focus with kids."

Liam Knox adapted this interview for the web. 

From The Reading List

STAT News: "The coronavirus ‘infodemic’ is real. We rated the websites responsible for it" — "The coronavirus has spawned an infodemic.

"That’s the World Health Organization’s term for the conspiracies, unsubstantiated claims, and phony cures surrounding the outbreak of COVID-19 that emerged in China at the tail end of 2019.

"The challenges to accurate information on the disease outbreak took center stage at this week’s White House press briefing when President Trump said that 'the risk to the American people remains very low' despite the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention’s warning that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is bound to spread more widely in the U.S.

"I’m an editor at NewsGuard, which rates the credibility of news and information websites. Our ongoing analyses show that misinformation about the outbreak is clearly beating reliable information when it comes to engagement on social media worldwide.

"Much of the misinformation centers on the unfounded claim that the virus was created in a laboratory. In one version of this false story, the source of the outbreak can be traced to Chinese spies who stole the virus from a lab in Canada, then mutated it into a biological weapon before it leaked out from a state-owned virology lab in Wuhan, China — where the first case of COVID-19 was identified."

The New York Times, "Coronavirus Updates: Global Infections Approach 90,000 as U.S. Scrambles to Slow Spread" — "Health officials across the United States were scrambling on Monday to trace all those who had come into contact with infected patients, even as they struggled to get a handle on how far the virus had spread in the country.

"To date, the American authorities have reported a total of 88 cases nationwide, with two fatalities, both of them older adults with underlying health problems.

"A genetic analysis of the virus in Washington State, where the deaths occurred, suggested that the illness could have been spreading within the community for as long as six weeks before the first case was detected.

"The coronavirus, now present on every continent except Antarctica, has infected nearly 90,000 people, killing more than 3,000."

Financial Times, "OECD warns coronavirus could halve global growth" — "The OECD sounded the alarm about coronavirus on Monday, warning that it could halve global economic growth this year from its previous forecast.

"The Paris-based group lowered its central growth forecast from 2.9 per cent to 2.4 per cent, but said a 'longer lasting and more intensive coronavirus outbreak' could slash growth to 1.5 per cent in 2020.

"It defined a more intensive outbreak as one that spread 'widely' throughout the Asia-Pacific region, Europe and North America and issued its warning as new cases were reported around the world and the death toll continued to climb.

"The OECD, a group of mostly rich countries, said the effect of widespread factory and business closures in China alone would cut 0.5 percentage points from global growth as it reduced its main forecast to 2.4 per cent.

"Its warning came as heavy hints of central bank support for the global economy jolted stock markets higher on Monday following a dire week in which global equities lost one-tenth of their value."

STAT News: "Experts envision two scenarios if the new coronavirus isn’t contained" — "With the new coronavirus spreading from person to person (possibly including from people without symptoms), reaching four continents, and traveling faster than SARS, driving it out of existence is looking increasingly unlikely.

"It’s still possible that quarantines and travel bans will first halt the outbreak and then eradicate the microbe, and the world will never see 2019-nCoV again, as epidemiologist Dr. Mike Ryan, head of health emergencies at the World Health Organization, told STAT on Saturday. That’s what happened with SARS in 2003.

"Many experts, however, view that happy outcome as increasingly unlikely. 'Independent self-sustaining outbreaks [of 2019-nCoV] in major cities globally could become inevitable because of substantial exportation of pre-symptomatic cases,' scientists at the University of Hong Kong concluded in a paper published in The Lancet last week.

"Researchers are therefore asking what seems like a defeatist question but whose answer has huge implications for public policy: What will a world with endemic 2019-nCoV — circulating permanently in the human population — be like?"

This program aired on March 3, 2020.


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Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


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Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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