The fast-spreading new coronavirus that originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan is, at its most immediate level, a public health crisis. But it is also much more than that. As governments struggle to contain the epidemic, the virus is already having economic ramifications in China and around the world. That’s the second level of its impact. And as the epidemic threatens to become a pandemic, and the speed of the contagion exceeds the number of cases of the 2003 SARS outbreak, there is a third level of consequences that has received far less attention: This coronavirus could leave a lasting political mark far beyond China that could ultimately be its most profound legacy.
Much will depend on how long this health crisis lasts, which, in turn, depends on how fast the virus continues to spread and how effective public health measures prove to be. Although the virus remains largely confined to China two months after it was first detected in Wuhan, it is all but certain that it will send shockwaves to every corner of the world, even if there isn’t a single new case outside of mainland China.
That is because, as the number of victims and confirmed cases in China grows—they roughly doubled in a recent four-day period—the country’s level of economic activity is steadily contracting. If that were happening in any other country, there would be fewer reverberations. But China is a unique case. Its economy is more closely integrated into global activity than ever before and vital to global supply chains. What happens in China economically does not stay in China.