In a globalised world, is isolation the best strategy?

public fear seems inevitable given the alarming updates on the coronavirus outbreak, and isolation – in the forms of lockdown and quarantine – has become our default response. As a social scientist in globalisation studies, I am interested in the role some of the less visible layers of globalisation – such as awareness of our connections with the lives of people elsewhere – have in shaping our responses, including emotional responses, to global threats, like this one and those to come.

For example, while the massive lockdowns in China have aimed to decelerate the spread of the virus, have we asked ourselves what has been going on in Wuhan, the epicentre of the 2019-nCoV outbreak and the first city to be locked-down, and what it may mean for the rest of the world?

Temporal aspects

The initial response to the epidemic in Wuhan appears to have been delayed by as much as a month, in part by its timing. The “largest human migration” that occurs annually during the Lunar New Year means there was an increased risk of widespread contagion and a potential threat to social and political stability.

In China’s system, a disease like this can never be only a public health issue; it is also one that requires careful political calculation. After the central government’s frustration in other international arenas, such as Taiwan’s election and the trade war with the United States, the epidemic is its biggest test and, therefore, a priority.

After Chinese President Xi Jinping’s public remarks on January 20, the country began taking immediate action. Authorities cancelled planes and trains leaving Wuhan and curtailed transit within the city on January 23, and other cities and provinces swiftly followed. As of January 25, the movement of 56 million people had been restricted.

Policies targeting the spread of the novel coronavirus included free medical care for infected patients, free travelling ticket cancellation, rumour control and the extension of the Lunar New Year holiday. Free apps for self-screening and public education on self-quarantine and face mask use rapidly became available online.

A spectacle of lightning-fast activity similar to what occurred during the SARS epidemic was repeated: Construction crews broke ground on January 24 on a 1,000-bed hospital. Another will open shortly after.

Although Wuhan, with its 11 million people, has a larger population than New York City, it is merely the seventh-largest city in China and a beta city in the world city networks, equivalent to Calgary.

In a way, it is fortunate that 2019-nCoV did not start in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong, all of which are highly-ranked world cities, second only to London and New York City, with direct daily flights to other global cities, including Toronto and Vancouver. Had it begun in one of those major centres, the global landscape of the new coronavirus might today look very different.

At a domestic level, though, Wuhan’s location as a historical transportation hub in central China confers additional risk, considering its easy access through multiple routes, including water – the Yangtze River – and high-speed trains, to many other provinces.