China was completely unprepared when the virus now known as SARS emerged in the late autumn of 2002. Among other deficiencies, the government had almost no medical or administrative infrastructure in place to identify, monitor and respond to an epidemic, much less to notify the rest of the world of the impending danger. As a result, thousands of people were infected, almost 800 died, and the global economy suffered at least $40 billion in losses.
China is now facing another emergent disease, 2019n-CoV, which appears to have originated in a wet market in Wuhan. So far, the death toll is in the single digits, with hundreds of people infected, and hundreds more illnesses potentially undetected. Like SARS, this virus can be transmitted between humans and, worse, it’s spreading just as hundreds of millions of Chinese begin traveling for the Lunar New Year. The good news is that China has spent two decades improving its ability to respond to disease outbreaks. Although the response this time has been far from perfect, it’s considerably better than the deadly coverup that ensued during SARS.