If I was writing a novel, the plot of which was a worldwide pandemic involving an exotic, novel coronavirus, here’s what the story would entail:
The novel would open on a late fall day in a thriving city of fifteen million in central China. A tourist would be strolling through a bustling city center. The tourist would come across a gigantic market in the center of town. At more than half-a-million square feet, it would be hard to miss. As he entered the market, he would be astounded—in a state of shock as great as if he’d stepped onto the surface of an alien planet. The noise and the smells would overload his senses, and his eyes would dart around at all of the stalls, the vendors hawking wares that this westerner had never imagined.
As he worked his way to the western end of the market, he would stumble upon the truly otherworldly stalls. He would see cramped crates of live chickens stacked on top of weasels, parrots on top of ferrets, giant centipedes on top of pangolins, and more. He would see stalls selling ostrich, camel, bear, deer, and dogs, many of those animals alive and waiting to be carefully chosen and slaughtered on site. He’d see a stack of crates with live civet cats stacked over rabbits, stacked over peacocks, bats with folded wings hanging over all of them. To the westerner, it would be like a scene from a PETA member’s personal hell. A jungle that would have made Upton Sinclair retch. He would want to leave, but, much like a bad car wreck, he’d find himself unable to tear his eyes away. He would watch as the bustling crowd of mostly Chinese citizens chose their live animals, the clerk butchering the animal for them, craftily cutting it into portions, bagging and wrapping it, and calling the customer’s number to pick it up when it was ready.
He would elbow his way through the crowd, carefully stepping around puddles of water, blood, chicken guts, fish scales, feces, and unknown, unthinkable slimy objects, trying not to get his shoes filthy, while at the same time, trying to ignore the cacophony of screeches and pitiful mewling from the doomed animals in their cramped and squalid cages.
Eventually, he would find an eating area, picnic tables with peeling paint packed with locals and tourists alike eating food from some of the vendors who cook it to order. Wearily, he’d take a seat in one of the few open spots, settling in next to a local man eating a thick, creamy soup with chunks of unidentifiable meat. As he leaned back to take in the sights, the person next to him would sneeze, turning his head toward the westerner to avoid spraying his food. The westerner would jerk, then, remembering his manners, would say, “bless you” before realizing that the local likely didn’t understand the sentiment.
As he left the market, the westerner would not notice that at the other entrance now far away, the one he’d casually strolled through an hour earlier, Chinese soldiers had arrived in droves, many wearing white hazmat suits, whistles and shouts clearing out the shoppers, authoritarian figures shutting down each stall in a brazen display of brutal efficiency only possible in a dictatorship.
The westerner would go back to his hotel, oblivious to the disruption in his wake. A few days later, having just missed all of the excitement, and having seen absolutely no news on television, or in one of the many English language newspapers about the militaristic shutdown of one of China’s largest and most lucrative markets, he’d board a flight, scrolling through his pictures on the plane, excited to share the stories of his travels with loved ones and friends.
The plane would land in Seattle, where the tourist would be greeted by his wife and children. The next day, he would return to work in a downtown office building where he would regale his co-workers with stories about the exotic animal market. A few days later, the tourist would notice some phlegm in his throat, an itchiness in his nose, and a cough. He’d ask his wife to check his temperature and she’d discover it had climbed to 101. Not overly concerned, he would crawl into bed, take a shot of Nyquil, and hope he felt better in the morning.
The novel would then move back to China, from the viewpoint of a Colonel in the Ministry of State Security, the intelligence service of China. This Colonel would be in charge of a top-secret division of the Ministry, responsible for maintaining order during any incident likely to cause civil unrest. Reporting only to the Deputy Minister for State Security, his powers would be broad ranging, and near absolute. He would be a hard man in his sixties, with iron hair and hawk-like eyes. A career military man, he would have a well-documented but top-secret history of trouble-shooting and problem solving.
The release of a novel coronavirus would be a scenario that his division is incredibly and almost uniquely well-prepared for. The first step would be to lock down the suspected source of the virus, the Wuhan wet market. The second step on the long-refined checklist, would be to control any leaks. Already there have been a few, one from a journalist who managed to send out a tweet about a strange, flu-like sickness befalling a bunch of locals, and one from a doctor at the local hospital, this one a query sent out to both the CDC in the United States and to the World Health Organization regarding an unknown novel coronavirus. The colonel had intercepted the sample the doctor had tried to send out, but had not been able to intercept the electronic query. He had, however, notified both the offending doctor and the journalist in the strongest terms that this type of communication with the outside world was forbidden. In fact, the journalist would be currently under arrest and awaiting trial for spreading false propaganda against the state, a charge falling just short of treason. The doctor would have been allowed to return to work after strict orders to keep things under wraps.
The colonel would muse about how difficult his job was actually going to be. With already more than 1,000 cases in this city of 15 million, plugging all the leaks was getting more and more difficult. In top secret meetings with experts, he would have been notified that the strange sickness had already undoubtedly spread around the world. Wuhan was a bustling city with industry centers that had probing fingers in vast global trade. Already, there was certain to be cases of the virus percolating in the bodies of many of the passengers of the hundreds of long-haul flights leaving the city each day. The colonel would chew on some aspirin or antacids, trying to calm the sickening feeling of stress and fear that probed at his stomach. It wouldn’t be long before Western nations would begin making queries, and he would know the suspicions they undoubtedly already had. Three years earlier, a noted American public health specialist and infectious disease expert named Doctor Michael Osterholm, had published a book titled, Deadliest Enemy: Our war against killer germs which named China as the most likely origin of the next global pandemic involving a novel coronavirus. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Netflix, just three weeks earlier, had released a documentary called Pandemic: How to prevent an outbreak that also labeled China as the most likely source of a SARS-like novel coronavirus, even going so far as to pinpoint the likely origin as one of the many wet markets throughout the country. He would know that the eyes of the world were already on China, and that control of information was critical.
Of course, the meat of the novel would be centered on what we now know is actually taking place. It would discuss the colonel’s failure to contain the information, the world’s waking knowledge of the Wuhan coronavirus. It would discuss the anger of the Chinese Politburo at the inability of the Ministry of State Security to contain the leak. It would discuss their refusal to allow western doctors and virologists into the country to examine patients and sequence the virus. It would explore their efforts to lock down true information and disseminate misinformation. It would follow their herculean efforts to isolate the city of Wuhan, their draconian measures to control the spread of the virus through brutal and uncaring police actions against the population. The government would order full quarantine of the city, shoving boulders in front of apartments to trap the citizens, patrolling the streets with heavily-armed soldiers in full bio-hazard gear. They would build two dedicated hospitals in less than a week, ordering doctors from around the country to converge on the hot zone. Huge military tankers would crawl every street spraying a thick fog of disinfectant over entire blocks. Their efforts would result in a containment of the virus that would give the world hope that it wasn’t as serious as most experts warned.
In the meantime, the rest of the world would go about their merry way, ignorantly failing to heed the warnings of experts, doctors, virologists, and on-site witnesses, including the original whistle-blower, the doctor who tried to warn the world before he himself perished from the virus. China’s withholding of pertinent information, their failure to warn other countries, and their refusal to allow in doctors from the WHO and the CDC to study the virus would retard any possibility of containment. The virus would spread, passing from one person to another asymptomatically as western civilization plodded unknowingly forward toward doom — a never before seen and rarely imagined catastrophic scenario on a global scale.
Every continent on the planet would slowly waken to the danger and begin taking steps toward containment. Despite the obvious nature of the threat, there would still be many who would ignore it. Despite having a mortality rate twenty times, and an R-naught infection rate two to three times that of influenza, and despite having asymptomatic spread, a rare condition long exploited by end-of-the-world novels and apocalyptic films, there would continue to be an overwhelming roar of people denying the dangers and making comparisons to influenza. The Flu-Truthers. The American president would use Twitter to tell Americans that there was nothing to fear, that the virus was not dangerous, and that they would be fine. The French, while the rest of the world was going into full lockdown, would set a new world record for the gathering in one place of 3500 people dressed as Smurfs, many of the blue faces shouting in posted videos that they weren’t scared of a little virus. Americans would pour onto the beaches of Florida and Mexico in spring break festivities that decried any fear whatsoever, and across Europe, people would enjoy the warming weather in congregations of tens of thousands at concerts, shows, and sporting events.
Of course, the incredibly dangerous nature of the coronavirus would finally be realized in nations around the globe. As China’s cases began to decline due to their herculean and oppressive containment measures, the rest of the world would experience a heart-stopping surge of cases and fatalities. Everything would shut down, the smoothly oiled machinery of the entire planet grinding to a halt. Nearly every country in the northern hemisphere would lock down their borders and institute forced quarantines.
Of course, the virus would continue to rage unchecked, barely slowed. Because this virus, this heartless, perfect little killing machine, would have an incubation period and infection time that stretched out to two or three weeks, which, combined with that rare little pleaser known as asymptomatic spread, made it one of the most dangerous viruses the planet has ever seen.
Sure, like most of the apologists and deniers would point out, it’s mortality rate would be lower than MERS, EBOLA, and the Spanish Flu, and its R-naught rate would be lower than the SARS epidemic of a decade earlier. But, what so many of them would choose to ignore would be the combination of perfect elements in this microscopic, unseen, devastating, globe-stopper. The high, though not unique R-naught rate. The middling mortality rates. The long incubation and infection period. And, the deadliest of all, the asymptomatic spread capability.
I know this seems like a stretch of fictional credulity, but bear with me…
The virus would get a name of course, and the name would be intentionally lacking of any tag of origin, so as not to seem unsympathetic or racist. Despite many viruses having names that point to their origin, MERS—Middle East Respiratory Syndrome—being one of the more recent, this virus would not for long be called the Wuhan coronavirus, but would be called the very bland and unassuming Covid-19, a portmanteau of coronavirus disease 2019. Any mention of the origin after receiving its official name—things like calling it the Wuhan virus, or the Chinese virus, would be met with an onslaught of furious social justice advocates decrying the racism of terminology hinting at the origin.
China would seize hold of those calls of xenophobia. They would encourage that kind of thinking. They would be thrilled.
You see, because back in China, the government and politburo, headed by a person named Xi Jinping, a dictator in all but title, would begin to recognize an incredible opportunity. As the rest of the world shuts down and flounders under the weight of the devastatingly fast, wildfire-like spread of the virus that originated in the middle of his country, thanks to his severe and heavy-handed approach to containment, China itself is on the rebound. The rest of the world sees cases and fatalities blow by China’s totals in just weeks, the United States taking the brunt of it as deaths soar over a hundred thousand. The novel at this point would switch to the viewpoint of this militaristic president as a plot begins to grow in his coldly-calculating and highly intelligent mind.
Already a dominating superpower with controlling interests in so many of the basic necessities this planet relies on, things like Rare-Earth Elements which power nearly every electronic item in the world, and which China controls more than 95% of, and with a stranglehold on the supply chain of so many medicines relied on by western civilization, he’s in a rare position to increase China’s power and status to unseen levels. To once and for all thrust China into their rightful place as the one world superpower.
The Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges would begin to soar as the Chinese industry got back into running at full strength. As the rest of the world’s markets began to collapse, driving the planet to the brink of a full and brutal recession, industry in a complete coma in all western markets, China would begin driving so many of the industries where they’d once, in a better time, lagged behind, while at the same time, tightening their stranglehold on the all-important Rare-Earth and medicinal markets. While the rest of the world watched trillions of dollars of market cap disappear nearly overnight as cases of the coronavirus soared out of control and fatalities followed an exponential doubling curve that was unstoppable, China would suck up that market cap, exploding into a domestic bull market never before seen, as their own Covid-19 fatalities hit zero and new cases dried up.
Back in America, a sailor onboard a U.S. Navy destroyer would open a piece of mail from a loved one back home, unknowingly picking up the virus from the contents before rubbing his eye and infecting himself. Within weeks, the virus would spread through the ship, then to others in the fleet. Despite all containment efforts, before long, the Navy would be damaged severely with sick and dying sailors, a condition that would spread throughout the military, not just in America, but all over western civilization. Xi Jinping would notice this of course, and his plan would begin to come together.
China would begin withholding the critical components used in every major electronic in the world, including every military guidance system and complex weapon, citing increased domestic consumption. With the full might of the Chinese military power, at the moment when the rest of the world was at its sickest, Xi Jinping would launch an attack on Japan, exacting long-awaited payback for the Sino-Japanese war of 1937. The Chinese military would then drop into Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, plowing through the Asian countries with little resistance from the sick, disabled, heavily-weakened militaries. The rest of the world would wait powerlessly with their own depleted militaries. Of course, this territorial aggression could not stand unchallenged, so, with no other options, the angered and unhinged leaders of both America and the United Kingdom would form a coalition. United threats of nuclear war would be made, because really, what other option was left?
Would those threats be carried out, plunging the world into nuclear Armageddon? How would I know? It’s just a novel, and the ending has yet to be written. Besides, this whole scenario has become entirely far-fetched.