The coronavirus (or Covid-19) is continuing to spread across the globe, with the US proving concerningly vulnerable, thanks to a set of calamitous policy decisions and generally insufficient preparation.

Thankfully, fatalities have so far been quite low, but fear of the disease was dominating headlines across the world. But worry, when combined with ignorance, can often lead to panic. There have been many reports of bulk buying of face masks, hand sanitisers and toilet paper (an item of questionable importance in these circumstances) across the world. 

Fear can also encourage poor information to be widely disseminated, particularly among low-information citizens. Plus an assortment of grifters inevitably rise, seeking to make a quick buck by claiming to have cures for the virus (which has no working vaccine and is unlikely to get one until late this year at the very earliest). Think of Jude Law’s huckster character in the movie Contagion, pretending supplements could ‘cure’ the virus of that movie. 

As social media has proliferated, so has the spread of fake news. WhatsApp groups have accelerated the spread of misleading or outright fake information, while global e-commerce retailer Amazon has banned more than one million products that claim to protect or cure the virus, including vitamin-C boosters and silver solution. There have been outright dangerous claims circulating too, such as that drinking bleach would help to cure the virus (it's much more likely to kill you).

The truth is that there is no magical fruit, vitamin, chemical or alcohol that can protect against the coronavirus. Instead the best remedy to avoid catching it is to regularly wash your hands with soap or detergents for 20 seconds and refrain from touching your face – as well as wearing a mask if you have flu-like symptoms.

That sort of boring but pragmatic advice might lack the flair or magical online cures, but at least it works.

QUOTE OF THE MONTH

“You are not going to slay a disease by lowering interest rates” 
Bernard Baumohl, chief global economist at The Economic Outlook Group, felt the coronavirus outbreak might not be particularly affected by the US Federal Reserve’s 50 basis point interest rate cut on March 3. 

ATTACKING PENSIONS' PATRIOTISM

In February the chief investment officer (CIO) of California’s largest pension fund became the unwitting star of rising political tensions between the US and China.

Yu ‘Ben’ Meng, the ethnically Chinese CIO of the California Public Employees Retirement System (Calpers) came under a volley of criticism from Indiana Republican congressman Jim Banks on January 20. The politician reportedly wrote a letter to California governor Gavin Newsom to demand that he fire Meng. 

Yu 'Ben' Meng, Calpers

The reason for the attack? Impressing President Donald Trump, most likely. Banks’ letter criticised Meng’s “long and cozy” relationship with Beijing, and attacked the fund’s investments in Chinese companies.  For the record, Meng was born in China but is a US citizen. He worked at Calpers for seven years from 2008, then shifted to be deputy CIO at China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, until he was rehired to be Calpers’ CIO in January 2019. 

It doesn’t seem coincidental that Banks’ letter emerged five days after secretary of state Mike Pompeo accused US pension plans, including Calpers, of not doing their patriotic duty by investing in China. 

“California’s pension fund … is invested in companies that supply the People’s Liberation Army that puts our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines at risk,” Pompeo asserted in a speech to the National Governors’ Association, stretching the definition of investor responsibility to the point of absurdity. 

The US, it should be remembered, has never engaged in a war with China, and there are no signs it will start soon. Plus Calpers CEO Marcie Frost replied to Banks that the pension fund had reduced its investments in Chinese stocks in recent years. 

Of course the facts don’t matter in these cases; instead they are largely attempts by some Republican politicians to please the president. But it’s a concern when they do so by casting aspersions at US citizens based on their backgrounds and ethnicity.

There’s a word for that. 

This article was taken from the latest AsianInvestor Spring 2020 edition. Subscribers should look out for the hardcopy in the coming week!