OTD: COVID-19 declared a pandemic with widespread numismatic impacts

On this date last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, a novel coronavirus first identified in January 2020, as a global pandemic.

As of March 11, 2020, COVID-19 hit more than 120 countries with nearly 125,000 cases and about 4,300 deaths; however, its spread began impacting economies worldwide long before the WHO’s pandemic declaration. In a matter of days, dozens of coin shows, auctions, club meetings and other numismatic events were also cancelled as concerns about the pandemic escalated. Today – 365 days later – the numismatic industry is one of many sectors still battling the pandemic’s widespread effects.

“This is really devastating not just for everyday life but for the numismatic community as well,” Paul Johnson, the long-time executive secretary of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association, told CCN last March as the pandemic was taking hold.

“It’s going to affect a lot of people, including dealers and their sales. It’s their livelihood. People can still buy coins through the mail, but the interactions at shows are so important. Obviously, it’s very important to keep the lines of communications with dealers and other collectors open, but other than that, there’s not much that can be done. We have to pull together as a group, and hopefully, sometime in the future, this gets sorted out. We can all see what’s happening out there and it’s devastating.”

WHAT IS COVID-19?

In December 2019, the world began experiencing its latest coronavirus outbreak, which would later be identified as a strain of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).

The first cases were recorded in Wuhan, China, as pneumonia of an unknown cause. By January, a novel coronavirus was identified as the cause, and in February, it was named SARS-CoV-2 (after the first SARS virus, SARS-CoV-1, which largely affected China, other East Asian countries and Canada in 2002-04). The disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 is called COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.

COVID-19 is “much less virulent” than the first SARS, said Toronto stamp collector and doctor Jean Wang, a clinician scientist and staff hematologist at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, so the disease is “typically very mild in most people.” But with a mortality rate ranging between one per cent and five per cent, COVID-19 far surpasses the virulence of seasonal influenza, which is caused by different kind of virus and kills only 0.1 per cent of the people it infects.

COVID-19 became such a significant global pandemic – more than the first SARS in the early 2000s and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012 – because it spreads rapidly.

“It’s sort of like a perfect storm of characteristics for this virus,” said Wang, who added SARS-CoV-2 is highly contagious but causes mild disease in most people, leading to asymptomatic spread at an exponential rate—something exacerbated by globalization, urbanization and widespread travel.

“And there’s no pre-existing immunity, so it’s a new virus – we’ve never seen it, nobody’s immune to it – and therefore everybody’s susceptible to it, and that’s why it’s spreading everywhere.”

As of June 2020, there were more than 8.1 million reported cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with nearly 450,000 deaths and 4.2 million recoveries. By this March, COVID-19 cases his 118 million with 2.625 million deaths and 94 million recoveries.

For comparison, the first SARS outbreak saw little more than 8,000 cases and 774 deaths while MERS had only 2,500 cases and about 800 deaths.

Going back to the 1918 flu pandemic (also known as the Spanish Flu), there were 500 million cases – a third of the world’s population – and about 50 million deaths.

“They implemented the same kind of public health measures that we’re implementing now,” said Wang, referencing the widespread business closures and strict limits on public gatherings put in place in Canada since March.

The goal is to “flatten the curve” – to delay or mitigate the virus’ exponential spread – through physical distancing.

“The reason to do that is because even though it causes mild disease in the majority of people, the important number here is not the relative number but the absolute number. If millions of people are infected – even if it’s only one per cent that get very sick and need ICU (intensive care unit) and ventilators – those are huge numbers, and we just don’t have that capacity in the healthcare system.”

Coin shows worldwide have been forced to close their doors since the pandemic began one year ago.

SLEW OF SHOW CANCELLATIONS

Following Health Canada’s community-based measures to mitigate the virus’ spread, some show organizers cancelled their events just days before they were slated to begin.

In addition to public and mass-gathering cancellations, these community-based approaches continue to include physical distancing plus widespread school and workplace closures.

A day after the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, CCN reported on the Edmonton Coin Show and Sale – Canada’s largest coin show – which organizers cancelled only two days before the event was set to open its doors to the public.

“The show was cancelled because of the changing advisories by local health authorities, who are now understanding what the risk really is,” show co-chair Pierre Driessen told CCN on March 12, 2020, adding that risk centres on people aged 60 and over—a major numismatic demographic.

A slew of cancellations followed throughout that weekend, and among these was the 29th Annual Cambridge Coin Show.

“Up until March 11, it seemed as it would be business as usual with a few added precautions until all hell broke loose on Friday the 13th of all days,” said Peter Becker, secretary and newsletter editor of the Waterloo Coin Society, which organizes the annual show.

“The spring coin show season is in serious jeopardy and all similar large events will be forced to cancel as has happened with the Edmonton, Cambridge and Guelph coin shows. Dealers whose livelihoods depend on these events and who don’t have a large Internet presence will be greatly affected by this in addition to collectors looking to sell.”

Across Canada, the United States and most other countries, local coin club meetings were also forced to shut down—a situation exacerbated by the fact many of these meetings are held in senior centres, community centres and churches.

“Whether or not we want to support the organizers, they have no choice but to comply with local health authorities’ orders,” added Becker. “A tremendous amount of pre-planning, advertising and a significant amount of expense goes into each show before the doors are even opened to the public.”

The cancellations have continued through this summer, with virtually all shows – big and small – either postponed, cancelled or moved to a virtual format since last March.

CCN published a two-part numismatic year in review in Vol. 58 #20 and Vol. 58 #21.

CCN’s COVID-19 medal features a reverse design by 57-year-old collector Anthony Wait, of Edmonton, Alta.

PANDEMIC ‘MEMORIES’

The National Hockey League, National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer all postponed their respective 2020 seasons.

All major awards shows, including Canada’s Juno Awards, were also cancelled soon after the WHO’s declaration.

In February 2020, Bitcoin began trading above $10,000 (Cdn.) as investors sought refuge from COVID-19’s economic impact. The cryptocurrency’s most recent low – in December 2018 – hit about $3,000 US, down from its all-time high of $20,000 US in 2017. As of this March, the price of Bitcoin is nearing $72,000 (Cdn.).

In March 2020, gold also began trading at a seven-year high, hitting about $1,765 US an ounce—its highest price since October 2012. As of this March, the price of gold has fallen back to about $1,720 US.

Silver has seen similar gains, hitting a seven-year high this February, when the price of the precious metal topped $30 US (about $38 Cdn.) for the first time since 2013.

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