Gwynne Dyer is a Canadian-born independent journalist whose column is published in more than 175 papers in 45 countries.

By Gwynne Dyer,

In an emergency, the good thing about a dictatorship is that it can respond very fast. The bad thing is that it won’t respond at all until the dictator says that it should.

Consider China’s response to the emergence of nCov-2019 (novel coronavirus 2019), a new viral threat potentially as serious as the SARS virus of 2003. Some things it has done well, but others it did very badly, and the odds that the virus will spread globally are now probably evens or worse.

The local health authorities in Wuhan, where the virus first appeared, spotted it on 31 December, when only a few dozen cases had come to their attention. They promptly shut down the seafood and wild game market where the victims caught the disease. Score: 9 out of 10.

On 9 January China’s national health authorities announced that they had found a brand new coronavirus, and one day later they released its full genetic sequence online so medical researchers worldwide could start working on it. Elapsed time: eleven days. Known deaths at that point: one. Score: 10 out of 10.

The medical people did their job; the political people did not. The doctors undoubtedly recommended travel restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, but the Communist Party-appointed political authorities did not dare to move before the Leader spoke. Nothing was done.

There’s only one way to control the spread of a new infectious disease for which there is no vaccine, nor any effective cure. You isolate the victims as soon as they are identified, and give them what medical support you can: some will die, but most will usually survive. If you do that soon enough and thoroughly enough, the global pandemic never gets going.

But it was two more weeks before the city of Wuhan was cut off from the rest of the country. Lunar New Year, the biggest holiday in China’s calendar, was coming up fast, but nothing was done although half the population goes home for a visit at this time every year.

Now Wuhan is in lockdown, and the regime has even extended the New Year holiday by three days to keep people where they are a little longer. That doesn’t really help – people still have to go home eventually, and Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, admits that 5 million people left the city for the New Year celebrations. But it LOOKS decisive. Score: 2 out of 10.

Nobody dared to advocate isolating the city until the Great Panjandrum Himself had spoken. President Xi Jinping finally spoke last Saturday (25 January), saying that China faces a “grave situation,” and now the system is racing to do what it should have done two weeks ago.

Too bad, but if this really becomes a pandemic, it will probably be on the same scale as the Sars virus, and that is not really horrific: deaths in the high hundreds or a few thousands worldwide. The mortality rate among those who catch it appears to be about 2%, compared to 1% for ordinary seasonal influenza.

But one of these days something like the 1918 virus that caused the ‘Spanish’ influenza will emerge again. That killed around 50 million people worldwide

Since Chinese ‘wet’ food markets are now a prime source of dangerous new ‘flu-related viruses,’ the Chinese regime has a special duty to contain them early. It would be nice if China had its political act together before next time.