Opinion – Unpredictable, not uncontrollable

People who have been around long enough will have difficulty avoiding a certain feeling of déja-vu. The ongoing health predicament inevitably brings reminiscences of the SARS epidemic. Reaction was quicker, but still slower, and non-health agendas appear to be weighing too much and being detrimental to a more effective response.

By José I. Duarte | Economist, Macau Business Senior Analyst

What might seem at the beginning to be just a minor local disturbance is becoming a major regional, and possibly world, emergency. Lessons from previous crises do not seem to have been thoroughly learned and incorporated into institutional procedures. Harsher attempts to prevent the spread, such as locking up millions in their cities, may be necessary, but will prove a logistical, administrative and law-enforcement nightmare – and their effectiveness cannot be guaranteed. But that goes beyond the remit of this column.

It is not yet possible to ascertain how the situation will unfold and how severe this outbreak will be. Indeed, dealing with the situation requires immediate and sustained actions. Those who have been infected must be treated, and preventing the spread is an absolute priority. But that should not make us forget that the emergence of epidemics, especially due to new pathogens, is something for which we should be prepared at all times.

Several factors contribute to rising systemic risk. First of all, there is a growing world population living in increasingly denser urban settings. That population encroaches on larger geographical areas, either directly or indirectly. The potential for closer interaction with a growing number of animal species, and consequently, the probability of new pathogens affecting humans rises in tandem. Such risk is compounded by the fact that wet markets have proved difficult, if not impossible, to either regulate or ban effectively.

Inevitably, most, if not all, persons will be ill-prepared to resist a new disease when it comes. They will not have developed immune responses to a previously unknown organism. Existing medicines may not be effective, and even if some are, both dosage and administration will have to be tested on the ground. New treatments may need to be developed and will take time.

But the threat does not end there. Add to the mix an increasingly integrated world economy, linked by dense networks of transport and travel and the potential for the rapid spread of diseases and the obstacles to its containment has just increased manifold. A local crisis can fast become a world emergency.

Indeed, no one can foresee when these events will happen and, may the gods be thanked. Their very nature means they will occur rarely. Until they do, the quality of the pathogen, the starting location, the mode of transmission, or its virulence are obviously unknowable factors. But that these events will happen at some point is something we can take for granted.

Few events, barring dramatic political conflicts in the region, can be so disruptive for our economy and the residents’ welfare. They are a permanent part of what we might define as the risk profile of this city. One, as we all know, whose prosperity depends vitally on significant and continuous flows of people coming from China and beyond.

Consequently, such outbreaks constitute a permanent hazard. They can be devastating, and the later we set up appropriate measures, the more damage they can cause. No one doubts that they will always display features or bring about situations that cannot possibly be anticipated. Some of its features or spreading paths will always be uncertain and will be unavoidably so. Nonetheless, monitoring activities and contingency plans for such occurrences should be an explicit and permanent feature of our civil protection and health services preparedness procedures.