On this pop-up episode of She Thinks, Julie Gunlock, Director of the Center for Progress and Innovation at Independent Women’s Forum, talks with Independent Women Forum’s foreign policy fellow Claudia Rosett on the Coronavirus, how it’s spreading from China and what you can do here in America to prepare.


Beverly Hallberg: Hey everyone. It’s Beverly Hallberg. Welcome to a special pop-up episode of She Thinks, your favorite podcast from the independent women’s forum where we talk with women and sometimes men about the policy issues that impact you and the people you care about most. Enjoy

Julie Gunlock: Hi there everyone. I’m Julie Gunlock, the Director of the Center for Progress and Innovation at the Independent Women’s Forum. Joining me today is a good, good friend and IWF senior foreign policy fellow, Claudia Rosett, who today is going to be talking about something that’s on all of our minds, Coronavirus. Before Claudia and I get into this, I do want to give a quick bio on Claudia. She’s an amazing journalist, a completely impressive resume. She’s an award winning journalist who’s reported over the past 37 years from Asia, the former Soviet Union, Latin America and the middle East. And she has done groundbreaking reporting on the corruption at the United nations actually. Claudia and I have known each other for a lot of years and that is when I started to get to know Claudia during her work, her investigation into the United nations. Incredibly impressive work there.

Claudia has also been a staff writer at the Wall Street journal. She served on the editorial board there and with the Moscow Bureau Chief in the mid 90s. She’s published in numerous publications from the New York times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other, that is just a tiny list of the many places that she’s published.

So Claudia, I’m so glad to be talking to you today about this. I know you know a lot on the subject.

Claudia Rosett: Yeah, Julie, thank you for that lovely introduction. And this subject of this Coronavirus is really important. It will very likely affect us all in one way or another.

Julie: Definitely, definitely. So apparently now maybe you can update us a little bit on this, but the latest figures, as you say, you may have updated numbers, but it looks like it’s in 42 countries. According to the CDC, there are 53 confirmed cases in the United States. It looks like the total is now around 78,000, maybe a little bit more than that, who knows, overnight, it might’ve increased even more. And it’s killed around 3000 people worldwide. And I feel it’s really important actually here to just before we get into the latest data on this stuff is to interject, sort of my job at IWF is to tamp down alarmism and to make people feel like they don’t need the panic about things. But I will also say that it’s also my job to point out when you actually should worry about things. This is definitely a virus I think you should worry about. But I think it’s also important to say that this virus, for those who have died from this virus, they seem to have some sort of compromised immune system already. They’re sick, they may have another disease, they may have been suffering from another disease and then they get this virus and it’s just too much for their body.

So I want to say that on the outset, that it doesn’t appear that this is like sort of… This isn’t Ebola, the minute you get it, say your goodbyes and say your prayers. This is a fairly mild virus, it’s flu like, but it still can kill. So, so with that said, I don’t want people to listen into this because we are going to be talking about how this spreads so of course it’s highly contagious. And I don’t want people to think that they’re immediately going to drop dead if they do get this. But I think it is important, the CDC, the head of immunology at the CDC basically told her family that they should expect a major disruption as this week through the United States. So I don’t think if there’s any doubt that we will all be experiencing this. And I think getting some information on it is good.

So with that said, Claudia, if you could kind of give us an update on what the current status is of the infections and what governments are doing.

Claudia: The bottom line is do not panic, but do be informed and keep a close eye on this. It’s a sign of how rapidly this spreads, that even overnight, we’re now up to almost 84,000 officially reported infections worldwide in something like 50 countries. And with the special concern, the place where it began is China and that has by far the greatest number of infections, almost 79,000. But there’s been an enormous outbreak in South Korea. It’s gone from about 30 infections a week and a half ago to 2300 now. And Italy, which went from a handful to 655 as I look at the current tallies. Iran, which seems to have a very high mortality rate compared to others suggesting they’re probably under-reporting the number of cases, which has officially 388 cases reported today and so on. Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Germany, it is pretty much spreading. The cases are turning up at least in small numbers at this point, all around the globe.

So this things spreads very quickly. It’s a strange new virus. It’s neither precisely flu, nor is it some of the other things. It’s got characteristics that scientists are still trying to figure out. All of that made harder by China’s lies and secrecy where the main outbreak began. But in the statistics we’re getting, and these could change, but this is a rough picture right now, in about 80% of the cases it’s either so mild that there are no visible symptoms or it’s an unpleasant flu, that’s how it feels. But in about 20% of the cases it can turn critical. What basically happens is this is a virus that attacks the lungs and it can turn into very severe pneumonia needing hospitalization. In About 5% of the cases people end up in intensive care. And then the estimates of mortality right now are really kind of fluid, but roughly 2% which is a small number for if two in a hundred, and at the same time, that’s many, many times the actual flu.

A few more things that people have observed, and again this is all sort of up in the air a little bit right now because it’s new, and that is, it is worse for older people. As Julie mentioned, people with compromised immune systems tends to concentrate on that end of the spectrum. At the same time, quite relatively young people have died of this, notably a Chinese doctor who tried to blow the whistle on this early and was suppressed by the Chinese Communist Party, Li Wenliang, who died at the age of 34 earlier this month. So it’s both. It’s something where you want to wash your hands a lot and keep an eye on things and stockpile some provisions, and at the same time, this is not Ebola. This is something that can be fought and it’s something above all to be informed about.

Julie: So you mentioned China. I’d like to kind of pivot to China for a little bit, just obviously you’ve mentioned that this originated in China and there’s some really interesting theories on that. But I’d also like for you to tackle how has China been behaving during this outbreak? When we first heard news of this, and saw reports of this, was it just a small problem in China or had they waited? I’d kind of like to get a sense of how quickly China alerted the greater world community about this.

Claudia: Well, if there were awards for international awards for hypocrisy among dictatorships, China probably wins it with this one. What China’s ruling communist party did, and I say the communist party, I could say the government, but the communist party runs the government, Xi Jingpin, China’s president runs the communist party. And he has all these grand dreams that China is supposed to be the dominant world power in the century. He wants to make it that within his lifetime, part of this is that everything this huge party apparatus of surveillance and control, which is quite brutal, is used to try and burnish China’s image as well as infiltrate, subvert and so on. And when this virus turned up, it emerged apparently in the large industrial, central China city of Wuhan, sort of the Chicago of China, it began circulating probably last November, December. We know by December it was out there.

A number of doctors, young doctors in Wuhan noticed this thing because they’ve been on high alert since the SARS outbreak in 2003, which was a deadly pneumonia, which then sort of faded away, but they watch for things like that. They know that. And in particular, it was a group of doctors, but the one who’s really become the human face of what this tragic thing, this horrible thing that China’s communist party did, is they noticed that the SARS like pneumonia, very serious, was turning up among a small group of patients, and they were talking about it in an online chat room. And this doctor, Li Wenliang, was one of the people who said, “Take extra precautions. It appears to be quite contagious. It’s dangerous.” Well, they keep an eye on everybody in China. You’re not supposed to freely express yourself. So he and his colleagues were arrested and they were told by authorities that they had to admit that they were spreading rumors, that they were going to cause a panic, they were spreading lies, they were going to hurt China’s reputation. So they were basically coerced into signing documents saying they would not spread rumors and they went back to work.

And the same Li Wenliang who rightly observed this, tried to report it and warn people, caught the virus and died of it on February 7th, which was just terrible. China, meantime, having shut up these doctors who were trying desperate, trying to say, “Be careful. Look at this thing…”

… I’m desperately trying to say, be careful. Look at this thing. China then tried to hush it up for three more weeks. The authorities and what they did was just beyond belief. They didn’t just ignore it. They tried to suppress it. In fact, in Wuhan, where this outbreak was occurring, they closed down a seafood market where they suspect it might have come from. Although, I stress we do not know exactly where this emerged, but it clearly emerged in Wuhan.

And they shut down a seafood market. But they said it was for renovation. They didn’t warn people that it was for a disease. Then they went on, they wanted to have a big party for Chinese New Years. They went on just saying this virus doesn’t transmit from person-to-person. It’s not a problem. Well, it clearly does. And they reached sort of the apotheosis of this insane approach just before Chinese New Year, just after mid December where they hosted in Wuhan, a potluck dinner for 40,000 families trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records or something.

So you had tens of thousands of families bringing dinners to a common meal. I mean, if there’s a way to spread a virus, that’s it.

Julie: Right.

Claudia: And two days later, this case, finally something happened. We don’t, still don’t know exactly what, but within the Chinese Communist Party ruling mechanisms, they suddenly reversed engines and realized they had a huge problem, because of that case, at that point, people were dying in noticeable numbers. And it’s quite likely, although, China has not admitted this, that they had thousands and thousands of cases already. And what they did was then they turned around and in a complete draconian way, they quarantined the entire city of Wuhan, the entire province. Basically, they ended up quarantining about a 100 million people. Okay? Forcing them to stay home. And that’s how this thing got rolling.

So China, at the point we’re now being urged to follow China’s example of containment. Actually, China at the point where this probably was readily containable did everything possible to let it spread. And I would say it’s completely reasonable to say China has infected the world with a truly troubling and dangerous virus.

Julie: Well, and I saw some, I don’t follow this as closely as you do, but frankly, I feel like everybody is following it closer now. But I did see there were smuggled out videos and some really scary scenes of heavily armed police on the streets. I guess it was Wuhan, I’m not sure. Going house-to-house, people being locked in their apartment and housing units and not being allowed to leave. Who knows if they had adequate provisions. There was some pretty scary stuff. I mean, I’m not surprised to see that coming out of China, but those leaked videos were very, very chilling.

Claudia: Yeah. I mean, basically China has an enormous, China has been a very brutally repressive state for a long time. That’s what brought us Tiananmen Square 31 years ago. But they have a huge apparatus of surveillance and control. That’s what the communist party does. And once they turn that on the business of trying to control this virus, it is, yes, they can be highly effective in stopping movement, containing people, but the thing that is just vital to keep in mind, the thing that separates China from say a democratic society that decides it must impose a quarantine in an emergency or something like that, is in China there is no recourse for the people who are suffering what you just described.

They can’t go to the newspapers. There are no private newspapers. They can’t go to the courts. The courts aren’t fair. They are left, they simply have to submit and that’s the scene. And people briefly were able to get messages out, really talking about how bad things were, how badly they were being treated, as well as this epidemic that was now going on.

And China has now more and more shut that down and is now pumping out this flood of propaganda videos, sunsets over Wuhan, dancing patients and singing doctors. It’s like Soviet propaganda. It’s the same genre. That’s what we’re seeing now. The truth is it’s brutal.

Julie: Well, two things I wanted to ask you about. You say in China they don’t have any recourse and it’s this brutal regime that will shut people up. But my question is how are the international organizations, you have an incredible background in investigating, for instance, the United Nations. How are international organizations, particularly international health organizations, how has WHO been on this?

Claudia: The WHO should really apply for a job in China’s propaganda department, they have been doing everything in their power to praise China, ignoring, overlooking, throwing down the memory hole, China, the role of China’s Communist Party and system in getting and letting this thing emerge. Get to the point where it’s a real epidemic. The WHO was run by China’s nominee for years, Margaret Chan, out of Hong Kong, which I love Hong Kong, but unfortunately China is in charge there.

She was effectively China. And it’s now run by a former Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, which takes a lot of money from China for China’s various development projects. And he went to Beijing sort of, or soon after China began quarantining, and came away praising Xi Jinping to the skies, not a word about this is a brutal dictatorship, nothing of that.

Julie: Of course.

Claudia: Then the WHO sent a team into China where they, in order to get them in, the deal they struck with China was that it wasn’t actually a World Health Organization team. It wasn’t independent in any way. It was a joint team between China and the WHO, so half international, half China. They were squired around China. They never actually interacted with any patients. They met with officials. They were given sort of, again, it’s like the old Soviet tours except it’s the old China tour at this point.

They had so little contact with patients that when the leader, the WHO team leader, Bruce Aylward, a Canadian, returned to Geneva. He got right off the plane from Beijing and gave a press conference in an open room with reporters and one of them asked, why aren’t you wearing a face mask? You just came back from China. And his answer was, we haven’t had contact with patients. Well, that’s what’s going on with the WHO, which is still refusing to call this disease a pandemic even though it’s now in something like 50 countries. And I have to wonder, I don’t know what their motivation is.

What they’ve said is they think it can still be contained. Well perhaps, but it looks to me, there are certainly many suggested things that suggest to me they are waiting until the chains of transmission do not lead directly back to China, because over and over, in fact, the team leader gave a conference in Beijing, the WHO team leader of this compromised mission, at which he praised China’s techniques to such a degree. I thought, my God, if they said they won’t let him go unless, he talked about China as extraordinary, agile, innovative, nimble, and I’m looking at this thing, China had quarantined scores of millions of people without adequate facilities or medical care, as you described, with keeping them with armed guards in their homes. So international organizations could use a little improvement on this front.

Julie: Yeah. And you said earlier, we were talking about this and you said that China just arrested a leading speaker who’s been critical of the government and their response to this. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Claudia: Yeah, well they’ve done this, they’ve arrested many. There’s one specifically, but let me just first say, bloggers who were critical of what the Chinese government was doing, how brutally it was being, and sloppily and ruinously it was being done in places like Wuhan, have been disappeared. Okay. They’re just gone. Into quarantine, into prison, who knows? What has most recently happened is in Hong Kong, one of the longtime leading democratic, voices democracy, a newspaper owner named Jimmy Lai was arrested on Friday morning in Hong Kong along with two other democratic leaders. And what was his crime? He took part in a protest March on August 31st. Now, the signal events that went with that-

Julie: … do they know where he is?

Claudia: Yeah, during the protest. So this is all part of shutting people up, shutting people down. Hong Kong is the freest, the only place under China’s flag where people have been free to speak out. And remember there were these huge democracy protests last year. And now everyone in Hong Kong has been trying to avoid this virus out of China where they’ve had 94 cases confirmed to date and they’ve all been washing things and going around in face masks. That’s become the big preoccupation.

But what China is still doing, basically, even while fighting this virus, the people’s war that Xi Jinping has declared on the virus, they still have time to suppress, arrest, threaten, bully. Remember they’ve also kicked out three Wall Street Journal reporters over a headline. They have been complaining to the world that, they complained when President Trump curtailed most air traffic between the US and China and put restrictions on entry and airports. They check people. China complained about that, which is quite again, quite a bit of hypocrisy from a country that is quarantining millions of its own.

They’ve just called off-

Julie: … yeah, it’s also, yeah I mean, also China building this mega hospital to hold, I don’t know how many, and they built it in something like 10 days. And yet, you have these mixed messages as you say, that they’re now saying, “It’s contained. It’s contained.” That might be a good opportunity though, if we’re looking at, and I don’t remember how many countries. Did you say 58 countries that it’s now present in?

Claudia: It’s roughly present in 50, right now. And I will confidently predict it will be more before the end of next week.

Julie: Yeah, before we’re done with this podcast.

Claudia: Yes.

Julie: Before we’re done with this podcast.

Claudia: Yes. Yeah.

Julie: And for listeners know that this podcast, we’re recording it in one day, but it does take time to process and be put up. So certainly by the time this podcast is put up on the IWF website, it will have increased. This might be a good time to talk a little bit about sort of domestic issues. And I want to talk a little bit about, I put up a blog this week that I said don’t panic but prepare and I thought you’re line. “Don’t panic, but be informed.” Are really, really a good line as well. Talk a little bit about how contagious this is. I mean, we’ve already talked about the global spread. Frankly, I don’t really care what China’s doing because they lie and they hide things and they’re not honest brokers. But we do know now at least from, from more reputable sources, how quickly this spreads. So talk a little bit about the mortality rate associated with it and also just again, how contagious it is.

Claudia: Yeah. It appears to be very contagious. And again, they’re still trying to figure this out and the problem is you can’t rely on Chinese numbers. China is saying it’s coming down. We don’t know. We just don’t know. We’ve no window there. But as it spreads in places like South Korea, Japan, here we do get more accurate information and a lot of scientists are now looking at this. So it appears pretty well a certainty that it spreads by cuffs, sneezes droplets in the air surface contact that these are the main vectors. There’s some question about whether it can just travel through the air even if nobody sneezed but we don’t know that yet.

Basically it’s sort of centers on lungs, so it’s when people breathe out, cough in their hands, touch something. And the most important advice, everyone I’ve spoken with points to this is simply this, wash your hands a lot and do not touch your face, at least not unless you wash your hands. If you’re around anything where there might be contagion other people, places where other people have been. Things especially to be aware of, my pet peeve is those electronic pens in grocery stores and pharmacies where everybody who comes through has to hold it and sign something. If you have to do that, hold it with a hand wipe. Door pulls, elevator buttons and sort of be a more aware than usual of what are the things where everybody has come through that day would have touched it because that’s how it can spread.

And face masks you’re seeing on a lot of things they, unless they’re very high level, which are really sold out by now or in professional custody, they are more useful for protecting other people than for protecting yourself, okay, they are some level of protection. But more vital is keeping your hands clean. This would be a good season not to shake hands with people. It’s not rude. It’s fine to say, “There’s a thing, a problem out there.” Even for Ebola, the doctors worked out this elbow bump if you need to do something or bow or nod. But it’s not worth it, that’s exactly how something can spread.

And how contained this is it? If I can just give you a quick, what happened in Korea is alarming because we didn’t quite know what was going on in China. Were there other factors? In Korea a patient, they’re now calling patient 31 flew back from China through the Seoul airport onto a city in Southern Korea where she’s a member of a religious cult where they all get together and sit elbow to elbow and so on. And she did this. They weren’t wearing masks, they were just doing their thing. And this spread to hundreds of them. And the thing is, as soon as that happens, they then go out and have contact with other people, which is how you went from 30 cases about a week and a half ago to 2,337 as I speak. That’s explosive. That’s exponential. So that’s how contagious it can be. However, every step of discretion helps. So keep a distance where you don’t have to be close, don’t touch things you don’t have to touch when you’re out in public and wash your hands.

Julie: Well, Claudia, that that is good advice. And it was funny this morning as I was preparing for this podcast, I was just curious so I went on Amazon and not to sort of pinpoint Amazon, I think this is true of everywhere. But I went to see what the N95 so they tell you, “If you’re going to get a face mask, get the on that’s N95,” which apparently is a much stronger face mask. And so I went in and I looked and there are some available for the low, low cost and $299 and up. There are some for a little less but that was sort of a three pack. You get a whole three math for that. So certainly you won’t find it easy.

Now I will tell you, we do not have those masks, but we have some other masks. And one reason I think that if you can’t find the N95 mask, but you find some lesser masks, I guess, if you will, why it’s still good to have those is because I have this terrible habit where people tell me not to touch my face. I will touch my face, instantly. For instance, right now as I’m recording this, I am touching my face because I can’t help myself. And there’s actually studies about this that in certain situations you sort of automatically touch your face. So one thing that the mass will help you do is it’ll at least keep you from maybe touching your face because you’ll feel a mask up there. It’ll feel weird to touch the paper. So that to me is a good thing.

But I wrote a little blog and I just want to tell people it’s up on the IWF website and this is the thing that may happen if this disease, if this virus hits the city, they may ask people to do what’s called sort of a voluntary shelter in place, okay. And it’s sort of isolating yourself. And so families would be asked to kind of stay in doors, don’t go to the store so much, try not to get out because they’re going to try to stop the spread of this virus. And so they might ask people to shelter in place. And so it’s not a bad idea.

And Claudia, you kind of went over a few things, but in addition to just face masks, I think it’s important to have Pedialyte and children’s Advil or children’s Tylenol, adult Advil, right? And bleach and tissues and extra toilet paper and extra water. And then just a couple things that you’ll eat anyway, like canned soups that your kids already like and peanut butter or granola bars or protein bars. These things are kind of important just because you want to avoid leaving your house for a certain amount of time. Look, I’m no prepper and I don’t think this is a reason to dig a hole in your backyard and go live in it for three months. But I do think that a little bit of prep is probably good. Because again this will probably sweep through can considering how contagious it is, it will probably sweep through possibly your town. So I don’t think it’s a bad idea to get prepared. I think Claudia, you’d probably agree with me on that.

Claudia: Yeah, absolutely you should. Treat it like it’s a hurricane that might last for awhile. What would you provide yourself with? In fact, I just add, one of the big effects is tremendous interruption of supply chains, the things that, for instance, China manufacturers and ships out. And it’s not just finished products, it’s components, it’s elements of medication. China is the main source for the world of those face masks. One thing devoutly to be wished, normally we love free trade, but there is a security dimension to this that’s becoming very clear. We cannot be reliant on China for things that in a crisis we will need, we need to do something about that. That should be a discussion in Washington now.

But among the other things you can do if you have pets because even if something isn’t made in China, there are potentially a lot of disruptions in the work. So go out and get yourself enough pet food to ride that out because they can’t eat the peanut butter. And on the rest of it, again, it’s a matter of don’t panic the world will go on. And it’s possible that the US will simply word this off, but that’s not where the probabilities point. It’s more likely that it will come through and it’s a good thing to avoid if you can.

Julie: And to any parents listening, look, there is no indication that this virus and any way upsets cable or wifi. So if you are having to stay in your home for a couple of days, I think you will survive. Just put the TV on, give him a couple tablets, let him play some games and consider it a vacation. I wanted to leave it on that kind of happier note because I know this is a very, very serious topic. And Claudia, I can’t thank you enough for giving us some information here. This was a great conversation.

Claudia: Oh, thanks for the chance to talk about it. And everybody, do all you can to stay healthy.

Julie: Well, we hope you take away something new from today’s conversation. And if you enjoyed this episode, of She Thinks or like the podcast in general, we’d love it if you could take a moment, leave us a rating or review on iTunes. This helps ensure our messages reach as many American as possible.

Claudia: Share this episode and let your friends know they can find more, She Thinks episodes on their favorite podcast app. From all of us here, thank you for tuning in. I think, you think, she thinks.