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Covid-19: How did it spread in so easily and quickly in many places?

(as of May 2020)

It is obviously difficult to stop a very contagious virus that is dormant in many individuals. As an expert said "Wherever you think the virus is, it is already ahead of you". Individuals carried it from one country to another. For example, about 300,000 people traveled from China to the USA during January and February before Trump banned Chinese visitors; and, when the epidemic was already raging, nobody tested the 40,000 US citizens and residents who returned home from China, and nobody tested the tens of thousands who returned home from Europe.

Overall, however, the single traveler did not cause massive infections. The virus spread mostly via "superspreading" events. In April the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicin estimated that about 10% of cases accounted for 80% of transmission (paper). Later in the month a study from Shenzhen estimated that 9% of cases accounted for 80% of transmission (paper). And on month later Benjamin Cowling found a similar dynamics in Hong Kong: a few superspreding events were responsible for the vast majority of transmission (paper).

At the beginning of 2020 the virus benefited from several super-spreader events: the Chinese New Year holiday, the Champions League soccer games in Europe (notably the Atalanta-Valencia match), Louisiana's Mardi Gras, and the "spring break" holiday in the USA. Some are speculating that, even before this events, the virus was already around at the massive Consumer Electronics Show of January 7-10 in Las Vegas, where more than 150 companies from Silicon Valley set up exhibits and where thousands of people attended from almost every country of the world, including China. Milan's Fashion Week took off on February 22, despite the fact that the very day Italy reported its first death from covid-19 precisely in the region near Milan. Paris Fashion Week began the day Milan Fashion Week ended, on February 24, and most people who had attended the show in Milan also attended the Paris show. (US attendees departing Milan had their temperatures checked at the Milan airport but not at their arrival airport in the USA). The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was held at a Maryland convention center on February 26-29 and attended by thousands of people from all over the USA, including Donald Trump. The week-long Winter Party Festival, a beachside dance party for the gay community, was held in Florida on March 4-10. The world-famous carnivals of Brazil, including Rio de Janeiro's, the biggest in the world, was held on February 21-26 with the assumption that Brazil had no infections, but now its own scientists estimate that Brazil already had thousands of infections in the big cities and the carnival probably helped fan them out all over the country. The boxing match "Lumpini Champion Kiatpetch" was held in Bangkok on March 6 and is considered responsible for spreading the virus in Thailand via Japanese and Western visitors. On March 11 (one day before Italy shut all non-essential businesses) 50,000 Spanish and British fans crammed a football stadium in Liverpool to watch a Champions League game. An Austrian ski resort, Ischgl, has been linked to cases in 45 countries: the first case of a skier picking up the disease in Ischgl (a whole group in Iceland) was reported on March 5 but the village kept its facilities open to tourists from all over the world (a consumer rights group sued Ischgl in September 2020). Some of these events were not canceled for fear of the economic repercussions even if the experts were already warning that thousands of people could get infected and then bring back the virus to their hometowns. Most of the infections in Singapore and Saudi Arabia are in cramped dormitories used by foreign migrant workers.

Particularly terrifying are the religious events: the virus spread in Singapore after a couple who had just returned from Wuhan attended a mass on January 19 at the Life Church and Missions, the virus spread in South Korea in February via the Daegu branch of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus, Christian masses were still being celebrated throughout the USA even in March, a Muslim gathering in Delhi (of the Tablighi Jamaat movement) is blamed for spreading the virus in India, a similar Muslim gathering in Kuala Lumpur is blamed for spreading the virus in Malaysia, Muslim pilgrims to the Fatima Masumeh Shrine of Qom/Qum probably brought the virus to other parts of Iran (Iran did not close some of its largest shrines until March 18), and, Tanzania's president Magufuli refused to order churches and mosques in the belief that prayers "can vanquish" the virus (quote from his March 22 speech: " "coronavirus, which is a devil, cannot survive in the body of Christ... it will burn instantly"). South Korea has traced 3,736 cases to the first woman to become sick in Daegu. Then more than 100 South Koreans in Cheonan, a city 200 km from Daegu, were infected attending a fitness dance classes on February 15 held by a Daegu instructor. France has linked 2,500 infections to the annual assembly of the Christian Open Door Church, held on February 17-24 in Mulhouse: congregants spread it as far as Burkina Faso in Africa and to Guyana in Latin America. India has linked 15,000 cases in Punjab state to Sikh religious leader Baldev Singh who refused to self-quarantine when he returned to Punjab in mid-March from virus-plagued Italy and Germany and instead went preaching around the state (he later died of covid-19). On 17 March dozens of South Koreans were infected after attending the River of Grace Community Church where the priest sprayed saltwater into their mouths believing that saltwater would protect them. If international travel was the main vehicle used by the virus to spread on the coasts of the USA, churches were probably the vehicle used by the virus to spread in the south and the midwest: two people who attended children's events at a rural Arkansas church from March 6 to 8 infected at least 35 members which sparked a regional outbreak; and a mid-March conference at a Church of God in Christ in Kansas City sparked an outbreak in Missouri. Even in the middle of New York's "stay-at-home" order, on April 28 more than 2,000 Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn gathered for the funeral of a rabbi. In August 2020 South Korea struggled to contain a new wave of infections that was spreading to all 17 provinces of the country: it originated from a neofascist Presbyterian church called Sarang Jeil. Israel, which is normally one of the world's safest and best organized countries in the world, ended up with one of the world's highest rates of infections because Jewish Orthodox communities refused to practice social distancing. The superspreader event of 2021 was the Kumbh Mela festival held in the Indian city of Haridwar in April, one of the holiest pilgrimages of Hinduism, after which India became the epicenter of the pandemic (it didn't help that top politicians like the prime minister himself held mass political rallies at the same time). It didn't help that the Supreme Court of the USA barred states from imposing restrictions on religious gatherings: religion helped the virus spread, and killed more people than any terrorist attack.

And, of course, every school spread the virus to thousands of households: the children and teenager were largely immune but infected the older members of the household. When universities decided to move classes online, many students went back home: tens of thousands of unscreened young people spread through the country, possibly infecting families and towns that would otherwise be virus-free. The alarm was sounded on March 5, when a student returned to Chicago from study abroad in Italy and tested positive. New York's SUNY has more than 400,000 students and CUNY has almost 300,000. By March 18 all California universities had moved their classes online for their half a million students. It doesn't even have to be a large-scale event. The British company Servomex organized a business conference at the Grand Hyatt in Singapore on January 20 and one of the British attendees got infected and spread the virus first in France and then in his British hometown (becoming the first British case). Also infected at the conference were two South Koreans and a Malaysian (also Malaysia's first case). In Italy the epidemic started with a healthy 38-year-old marathon runner who felt sick on February 14 and infected a whole town in the week before he was diagnosed with covid-19, and by then the virus had spread to travelers who took it to Milan and from there to the whole nation and several other countries. On February 26 the biotech startup Biogen organized a conference at the Boston Marriott Long Wharf, attended by more than 100 people: two weeks later 70 of Massachusetts' 95 cases of covid-19 were traced back to that conference. (There was nobody from China but there were people from northern Italy). A funeral attended by about 200 people in Albany on February 29 is credited with spreading the virus in that part of Georgia, soon to become one of the worst clusters in the country. Similarly, a funeral service on February 23 in the Basque city of Vitoria-Gasteiz originated the third biggest cluster in Spain. A March 5 party of 50 wealthy people in Westport, Connecticut, is considered a super-spreader because those people left for many destinations and took the virus with them (a South African businessman fell ill on the flight home to Johannesburg). On March 10 sixty members of the Skagit Valley Chorale met for two and a half hours to rehearse at a church in Mount Vernon, a small town in Washington State: at least 45 people got infected and the county soon became a hotbed of infection. At the end of April, a worker in a large fish-processing plants of Tema in Ghana infected 533 colleagues. All sorts of places can become super-spreaders. By mid-April the main clusters in the USA (as a percentage of the population) were: Marion (Ohio), around the Marion Correctional Institution; Gallup (New Mexico), the main town of Navajo Nation (that sprawls across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah), a "nation" that had the third-highest infection rate in the USA behind those of New York and New Jersey; Cummins Unit prison in Lincoln County (Arkansas, near Pine Bluff); Grand Island (Nebraska), around the vast JBS beef processing plant, and Dakota City (Iowa, near Sioux City), around the vast Tyson Fresh Meats' beef plant. By mid-May, many of the 100 largest clusters in the USA had occurred in prisons, meat-packing plants and nursing homes. Germany's largest outbreak of the Spring was traced back to a meat factory. A single coal mine in southern Poland caused hundreds of infections in early June. Despite months of warnings against large gatherings, someone in early November organized a 300-people wedding in a rural town of Washington state, Ritzville, which infected dozens of people.

But of course all these super-spreader events pale in comparison with the effects of the media and the politicians. Much of the epidemic in the USA was caused by the statements of the president in person (Donald Trump), by the #1 radio radio show (on February 24 Rush Limbaugh claimed that "the coronavirus is the common cold") and by the #1 television channel Fox News, that for weeks downplayed the coronavirus even though its older audience is the one most vulnerable to the virus. Its top-rated show, hosted by Sean Hannity, mocked covid-19 on February 27 "Tonight I can report the sky is absolutely falling. We're all doomed. The end is near. The apocalypse is imminent and you're all going to die". Fox News anchors like Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs and Jeanine Pirro spread all sorts of conspiracy theories that denied the existence of the virus, the gravity of the virus, the effectiveness of masks against the virus, and so on. A study by the University of Chicago found that infections and deaths in different regions were proportional to how many viewers watched Hannity's show, a show that consistently downplayed the severity of the epidemic. These "news" makers were de facto serial killers.

Britain was the last country in Western Europe to introduce restrictions and soon became the continent's hot spot with record number of deaths, and the first European country to pass 100,000 deaths. Summer vacations in Europe caused the second wave in the Fall, and countries like Germany that had largely escaped the Spring wave ended up being the worst hit by the second wave because many of its citizens traveled to the places where restrictions on socializing were not enforced. When New Year's Eve came, very few countries allowed people to party. A notable exception was the United Arab Emirates. Thousands of Britons and Israelis flocked to Dubai's bars where they partied without face masks. Two weeks later both Britain and Israel (and, of course, Dubai itself) reported record infections and deaths.

Surprisingly, public transportation was not a super-spreader, otherwise east Asia would have been more severely hit. A Japanese study of late May found that the virus mainly spread in gyms and bars while no major cluster can be blamed on their crowded trains and buses (paper) and a French study of early June found a similar pattern there (paper). The case of New York may be different because US citizens didn't start wearing facemasks until much later.

All in all, Chinese travelers had very little influence on the spreading of the virus. A study by the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium detected "1356 independently-introduced transmission lineage", i.e. 1356 individuals who brought the virus to Britain, and of these only 0.1% were travelers from China (by comparison, 2% were from the USA, i.e. US travelers caused 20 times more infections than Chinese travelers did). The vast majority of course were travelers from continental Europe (paper).

See also:
Back to FAQ/ Q&A about Covid-19,
Data on Covid-19 and selected sources,
Covid-19: How it may change the World,
The Clown & the Virus,
The Clown & the Virus - Part 2,
Trump's Virus,
Sinophobia & Covid-19,
Sinophobia & Covid-19 in US Media,
Was covid-19 made in the USA? in China?
TM, ®, Copyright © 2020 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.
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TM, ®, Copyright © 2020 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.