The world is watching with anxiety and great concern the emergence of a new kind of coronavirus. Medical experts have stated that coronavirus can cause diseases in mammals, including humans, and birds. In humans, the virus causes respiratory infections which are typically mild but, in rare cases, can also be lethal. In cows and pigs they may cause diarrhea, while in chickens it can cause an upper respiratory disease. According to physicians, apparently, as yet, there are no vaccines or antiviral drugs that have been identified as approved for prevention or treatment of this disease.
Common signs of coronavirus infection include respiratory symptoms, fever and cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In more severe cases, this infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death. On 31 December 2019, a novel strain of coronavirus officially designated as 2019-nCoV by World Health Organization was reported to have emerged in Wuhan, China. This outbreak by 30 January 2020 had already caused more than 400 deaths out of over 20,000 reported confirmed cases. There have been more than 50 confirmed cases outside China. Medical analysts have consequently noted that the deadly aspects of this Virus have now surpassed that of the SARS epidemic outbreak that had taken place in China in 2003.
Infectious diseases are commonly transmitted from person to person through direct contact. The types of contact are through person to person and droplet spread. Indirect contact such as airborne transmission, contaminated objects, food and drinking water, animal person contact, animal reservoirs, insect bites, and environmental reservoirs are other ways for infectious diseases to be transmitted.
The emergence of this new disease from Wuhan in China is already creating havoc throughout the world. It is having its own effect on the international paradigm. There is particular apprehension given the continuing problems being created in Africa as a result of Ebola. We have also noticed the terrible after-effects of dengue that emerged from East Asia and slowly travelled into Bangladesh. Last year witnessed tens of thousands of persons in our country badly affected because of dengue. That also included more than a hundred early deaths. Earlier, people in this country witnessed and suffered the after-effects of chikungunya. Both dengue and chikungunya were identified as having been caused by mosquitoes. Earlier, we had known about mosquitoes being involved in causing malaria.
At this point one needs to recall how over the last few centuries pandemics and epidemics have caused serious after-effects on the world population. One should not think that such a situation might emerge in today’s world. However, one should remember the adage that prevention is always better than cure.
The evolving developments have led the World Health Organization to recommend an Integrated Vector Control program consisting of five elements: (a) advocacy, social mobilization and legislation to ensure that public health bodies and communities are strengthened; (b) collaboration between the health and other sectors (public and private); (c) an integrated approach to disease control to maximize use of resources; (d) evidence-based decision making to ensure any interventions are targeted appropriately; and (e) capacity-building to ensure an adequate response to the local situation. These are very good suggestions that need to be carefully coordinated not only in countries with affected populations but also in countries who, fortunately are still not infected with either Dengue or Ebola or coronavirus. This particularly applies for vulnerable Bangladesh.
China’s National Health Commission has reported that the ability of this latest version of coronavirus to spread is getting stronger and infections could continue to rise. On their advice, containment efforts have been intensified. It includes travel curbs and the cancellation of big events that are normally associated with the celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year holiday. Instead of heading into the streets to let off fireworks, people are staying at home out of fear of contracting this fast spreading coronavirus.
This latest version of the deadly virus is believed to have originated late last year in a seafood market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan that was illegally selling wildlife. It has since spread to other Chinese cities- Beijing as well as Shanghai- as well as to the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Australia, France, Vietnam, Nepal and Canada. The media has reported that the United States has sent charter planes to evacuate its approximately 1,000 citizens and consular staff from the quarantine zone.
It may be recalled that the 2002/03 SARS outbreak (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) started in Beijing and killed 774 out of a total of 8,096 infected persons. The 2012 MERS outbreak (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) killed 858 of 2,494 persons infected. Chinese researchers, in the meantime have suggested that this latest virus attack may have originated from bats, as the SARS virus did. Apparently, it shares 80 per cent of its genetic make-up with the earlier version.
This latest virus attack is also casting a long shadow on the international economic matrix. The global economy and the manufacturing sector are both facing setbacks after recently showing tentative signs of recovery in recent months. Major bourses across Europe have posted broad declines with the composite Stoxx 600 index falling 1.8 per cent and shares in the travel, luxury goods and mining sectors tumbling down. According to Financial Times, London’s FTSE 100 has slid 2.2 per cent, while Germany’s Dax has gone lower by 2.1 per cent. The Wall Street share market in the USA appears to have also suffered, particularly with regard to the S&P 500 futures. China’s financial capital, has ordered companies not to reopen until 9th February, while the manufacturing hub of Suzhou (home to factories owned by companies such as iPhone, Foxconn, Jhonson &Jhonson and Samsung Electronics) has postponed the return to work of millions of migrant labourers.
Economists are very wary about putting any figures on it at this early stage but some of them have estimated that the total cost of this latest virus outbreak to the global economy over the next few months might exceed US Dollar 40 billion. They are also pointing out that this might create a profitable scenario for the pharmaceutical industry.
This deteriorating situation has led Bangladesh authorities to also correctly start discussing about pre-emptive security and the precautionary measures that need to be undertaken in this regard. This has assumed importance given the fact that numerous Bangladeshis visit China because it is an important strategic trading and economic partner. This also leads to Chinese businessmen coming to Bangladesh. In addition, many Bangladeshi students carry on higher studies in several Chinese educational institutions. In recent times numerous Bangladeshis have also been going to China for receiving specialized Chinese healthcare. These elements have brought the entire situation into the forefront. This concern has assumed particular importance also because a large number of Chinese nationals are involved in the construction of the Padma Multipurpose Bridge. Due to potential risk, many of these Chinese workers have come under travel restrictions- both regarding visits to China and also return visits to Bangladesh.
The growing specter of this virus and its harm potential has persuaded the Bangladesh government, quite correctly to address this issue with seriousness. The government has urged people not to panic but to take necessary precaution. Dhaka authorities with the help of the Chinese authorities have also been able to bring back to Dhaka by air more than 316 Bangladeshis, mostly students from the affected area. They are now being kept under medical supervision. This has been a good step. This has been done to control potential spread of the disease.
Our Health Ministry has already convened an inter-Ministerial meeting to finalize precautionary measures. The Institute of Epidemology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) has in the meantime urged the security personnel at the Airport to take necessary preparation complying with WHO suggestions to detect the virus. It has been encouraging to note that this effort at the Dhaka Airport has already led to the screening of nearly 2,500 passengers arriving from China. Fortunately no one has been found with any virus infection.
France has also started its own efforts in this regard. The French government and the French carmaker PSA have started evacuating staff and families, who are being quarantined in a city in a neighboring Province next to Wuhan. Japan is coordinating with the Chinese government to swiftly evacuate its citizens. South Korea’s Consulate in Wuhan is conducting an online poll of its citizens to gauge demand for a possible chartered flight back to South Korea.
In the meantime, the health emergency has overwhelmed Wuhan’s hospitals with patients, prompting the authorities to send hundreds of medical personnel as reinforcement and also to set up with the help of the Chinese armed forces some field hospitals. With non-essential vehicles banned from Wuhan roads, volunteers, carefully dressed have stepped to drive sick fellow citizens to nearby hospitals and clinics. This sort of collective response is something that needs to be replicated during such emergency health situations in other countries. We did not unfortunately see such sufficient timely pro-active engagement when we were suffering from the dengue epidemic last year in Bangladesh.
In any case we need to be cautious at this time. This will enable us not to be sorry subsequently. Let us follow the WHO directives- (a) washing hands frequently with soap and water or wipe our hands with alcohol-based hand rub; (b) cover our mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing; (c) avoid unprotected close contact with anyone who has cold or flu like symptoms; (d) seek medical care if we have a fever, cough or difficulty in breathing and (e) while visiting markets, avoid direct unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals.
Let us treat this unfortunate situation with care and enter into an inter-active constructive engagement with the WHO so that our citizens as well as those in South Asia and elsewhere can live without fear.
One needs to also hope that the health sector is not found wanting in terms of required medical facilities during the time of need and will take steps to increase production and supply of anti-viral medicines, face masks and hand sanitizers.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at <email@example.com>