Coronavirus 2020 – China Acting on Lessons from the Past

Back in 2002, when China was confronted with the SARS outbreak — also termed as the first pandemic of the 21st century owing to its spread across 29 countries — the country was faced with a grave challenge. Even though the government was able to ultimately control the spread of the virus, the government’s decision to keep the matter hush in order to prevent mass panic ultimately backfired and exacerbated the spread of the disease. The virus spread to thousands of people over a period of 4 months, with the last death being reported not earlier than 2003.

Years later, another strain of coronavirus has broken out of the city of Wuhan in China – but the authorities seem to have learnt from the mistakes of their past.

Looking back at the relatively short timeline of the virus since its breakout just 25 days ago,  the situation doesn’t seem all that promising — over 800 people have been diagnosed with the virus, out of which 41 have succumbed to the disease. 14 cities within China have been put on a lockdown. The virus seems to have spread over parts of Europe and US. Back home in India, 11 inbound passengers from China remain in monitored isolation for fear of having been infected during their stay oversees. On paper, the situation seems grim.

And yet the WHO hasn’t classified the Wuhan coronavirus as a global health emergency, with its director general clarifying that “At this time, there is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside China,…”. While this observation comes as some relief for those of us placed outside of China, the current efforts by the Chinese authorities suggest that the situation within China will be mitigated in due time.

With the first case of the Wuhan coronavirus, as it is now being termed, being reported in early December, the authorities have acted with a justified sense of urgency. The most significant of these actions have been in the respective domains of city lockdowns to control the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus, wet market regulations to minimise further outbreak of zoonotic viruses, and infrastructural support to help fast track treatment of existing patients.

Within just a month of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, the authorities have been quick enough in putting a lockdown on 14 cities with a total population of around 56 million inhabitants in order to prevent the virus from spreading across regions. At a time when the Chinese population is traveling in bulk owing to the Chinese new year that has just passed as of 25thof January 2020, quarantining of cities becomes a necessity to protect global as well as local tourist hot spots from risk of virus. Latest reports state that all ferries, buses and outbound flight from Wuhan have been completely shuttered. This practical approach to managing further deterioration is of course, even more significant when compared to the more populist stance adopted by the Chinese authorities faced with a similar challenge back in 2002.

In 2002, government effort to control information spread about SARS worsened the situation. With Wuhan coronavirus, this is not the case – the authorities have responded to the situation with concrete action within a relatively shorter period of time. Of course, there are concerns about the quality of life within the quarantined cities. Air masks getting sold out, some public shops being shuttered, and many spots being deserted for fear of catching the virus are some seemingly justified inconveniences that have affected the quality of daily life.

While shutdowns help deal with the immediate thread of spread, the government has also been proactive in dealing with wet markets, which often become the sources of many zoonotic viruses i.e. viruses that spread from animals to humans. Both SARS and Wuhan coronavirus spread out of these wet markets which remain a popular attraction in China. Wet markets are typically narrow-laned markets where livestock, both living and dead, are sold to customers. The proximity of living and dead animals with humans in an unregulated atmosphere breeds a conducive atmosphere for the virus to bounce from an infected animal to an unsuspecting shopper. In order to address this concern, the government has now banned the sale of living animals in wet markets. The expectation is for this to control the spread of viruses from animals. Furthermore, the Huanan wet market in Wuhan where the virus is expected to have spread out of, remains shuttered ever since a 61-year-old regular became the first person to have contracted the virus — the man passed away earlier last week.

In adopting a wholistic approach towards treating the outbreak, the authorities must also ensure that the people diagnosed with coronavirus have access to fast tracked treatment. In order to address this issue, the authorities have sanctioned the construction of a hospital designated for dealing with such cases. The hospital is expected to be equipped with all the medical supplies and sanitary arrangements necessary to deal with patients infected with the virus. With 4000 people working around the clock, the hospital is expected to be in place by next week. This ensures that in the off chance of an exponential outbreak, the state’s infrastructural resources wouldn’t be compromised.

Of course, there is still the concern of economic constraints when it comes to treatment. With news of an Indian woman in China needing Rs 1 crore for her treatment doing rounds, one can’t possibly claim that the treatment is in anyway accessible to all. If these claims are true, perhaps the prospect of subsidised treatments for extreme cases must at least be debated.

Overall, China has taken a very proactive stance in managing the situation by addressing the outbreak, spread and treatment of the Wuhan virus. When compared to 2002, the situation today seems under control. While it seems like the Wuhan coronavirus is spreading at an alarming rate, it must be noted that its fatality is much lower than that of SARS – a mere 3% to a 9.7%. Of course, this doesn’t imply that the situation isn’t alarming. But rather, reassures that with consistent efforts, the situation in China is expected to normalise very soon.

-Contributed by Pragya Chamoli, Consulting Editor

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