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GUEST OPINION: Protecting land for Islanders
Director-General of the World Health Organization Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 30, 2020. The organization declared the coronavirus to be a global health emergency.
It was the second go-around on the question in a week, and on Thursday, the World Health Organization deemed it time to declare the rogue coronavirus a global health emergency.
The fast-spreading pathogen has escalated “into an unprecedented outbreak” and countries must prepare for its containment, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization said in declaring the virus known as 2019-nCOV a “public health emergency of international concern.”
In Canada, samples from 101 people have been sent to the national microbiology laboratory in Winnipeg. So far, three have been confirmed positive for the virus and 58 have been ruled out, leaving 40 still under investigation.
We must all act together now to limit further spread
While lavishing praise on China for the speed with which the country detected the outbreak, isolated the virus, sequenced the genome and shared it with the WHO and the world, “we don’t know what sort of damage this virus could do if it were to spread in a country with a weaker health system.
“We must act now to help countries prepare for that possibility.”
The move will trigger tighter containment and information-sharing guidelines to all countries, but may disappoint Beijing, which had expressed confidence it can beat the “devil” virus.
The number of cases outside China remains relatively small, with 98 cases in 18 countries, including eight cases of human-to-human transmission in Germany, Japan, Vietnam and the United States. On Thursday, the U.S. reported its first case of a person catching the virus from another on American soil. Canada has two confirmed cases in Ontario and one in B.C. There have been no reported deaths outside China.
“We would have seen many more cases outside China by now, and probably deaths, if it were not for the government’s efforts and the progress they have made to protect their own people and the people of the world,” Tedros said.
Despite the limited spread outside China, “we must all act together now to limit further spread.”
The declaration — “almost unanimously” backed by WHO’s emergency health committee — isn’t a vote of non-confidence in China, officials stressed. The concern is the risk of the virus spreading to ill-prepared parts of the globe.
China has now reported more than 9,600 cases and onThursday reported its biggest single-day jump in deaths; at least 213 people have died so far. “We must remember that these are people, not numbers,” Tedros said.
WHO urged countries to take a “measured and evidence-based response” to the global emergency. A PHEIC — pronounced “fake” and standing for public health emergency of international concern — implies a situation that is “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected,” carries implications for public health beyond the affected country’s border and “may require immediate international action.”
The declaration lets WHO question countries over unnecessary travel or trade restrictions against China, such as visa refusal, border closures or quarantine of healthy travellers, measures “which have already been taken by some countries,” said Didier Houssin, chair of the WHO emergency committee. Numerous airlines have already restricted or cut flights to China.
The agency has applied the emergency designation five times in the last decade: in 2019 for the Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo, the 2016 Zika virus, the 2009 H1N1 swine flu and twice in 2014 for outbreaks of Ebola and polio.
Tedros said nations need to work together to accelerate the development of vaccines and drugs, combat the spread of rumours and misinformation and review emergency preparedness plans, identify gaps and make sure they have the resources needed to “identify, isolate and care for cases and prevention transmission.”
“The only way we will defeat this outbreak is for all countries to work together in a spirit of solidarity and cooperation. We are all in this together. And we can only stop it together,” Tedros said.
“This is the time for facts, not fear. This is the time for science, not rumours. This is the time for solidarity, not stigma.”
In Canada, there are growing reports of racism and stigma directed to people of Chinese descent. Dr. Nadia Alam, past president of the Ontario Medical Association tweeted that “today my son was cornered at school by kids who wanted to ‘test’ him for #Coronavirus just because he is half-Chinese. They chased him. Scared him. And made him cry.” A Chinese friend and his brother were also targeted, she said.
Canada’s chief public health officer also expressed her alarm on Twitter over racist bullying on social media. “We need to learn from our exposure with SARS …. These actions create a divide of UsVSThem,” Dr. Theresa Tam said.
“Spreading misinformation, stigmatizing others or using racist rhetoric will hinder, not help our collective efforts to tackle this outbreak,” Tam added during a media briefing Thursday.
The virus is spread via droplets and possibly contaminated surfaces, or “fomites,” where the virus survives on inanimate surfaces like clothes, doorknobs or furniture for a short time. Symptoms include a fever and dry cough, shortness of breath, muscle aches and headache. Infections appear to affect older males with underlying health problems in particular and the fatality rate is believed to be around two per cent.
Tam said the WHO declaration “doesn’t really change what we do.”
“We’ve been preparing ever since the outbreak started,” she said, including enhanced screening of travellers at Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver airports.
With no active spread of the virus in Canada, and a diminishing number of travellers from China, Tam repeated the mantra that the risk to Canadians “remains low.”
However, a risk communications expert is questioning the “no reason for alarm” messaging. On Thursday, the United Kingdom increased its perceived risk level from low to moderate.
“Officials and experts are alarmed already — reason enough for the public to gird up its loins as well,” Peter Sandman said in a email to the National Post, sent from a ship off the coast of West Papua, Indonesia.
“Worry is about the future. Telling people not to worry about an emerging infectious disease because it isn’t a significant risk here and now is foolish,” Sandman said.
“Given the real possibility that the coronavirus might start spreading locally in North American cities, now is the right time to worry and prepare, at least emotionally and perhaps logistically as well.”
Masks may or may not prove to be useful, he said. “In case they do turn out useful, buying them now is provident, not panicky.”
More importantly, suggesting people are foolish to worry about an emerging infectious disease is patronizing, he said, “when what is needed is empathy.”
Officials and the media should focus more “on the high likelihood that things will get worse and the not-so-small possibility they will get much worse,” he said.
“I think there is little need to ameliorate public over-reaction now. The bigger need is to reduce public over-reaction later to predictable bad news that will take people by surprise insofar as they weren’t sufficiently forewarned and didn’t get enough chance to rehearse emotionally.”
Economists fear the impact could be bigger than the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, which killed about 800 people and cost the global economy an estimated US$33 billion.
— With files from Reuters
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020