Victoria Macdonald, Queens University.
2020 has gotten off to a rocky start. The new decade began with fear that Iran and the United States would initiate World War III. Shortly after talks of this have settled in the media, it seems that a mysterious virus has arisen to rouse even more fear surrounding the world’s ending.
In just over one week, twenty-six people have died from a coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China. At current count, at least eight-hundred individuals are infected across nine countries. Authorities have issued an order to quarantine Wuhan, halting all public transportation including city buses, trains, and ferries. This quarantine prevents any public transportation vehicles from entering or leaving the city. Furthermore, all planes have been grounded at the Wuhan airport and everyone flying in the region is being screened for the virus prior to departure. It does not stop here. Beyond the lockdown in Wuhan, nearly a dozen other quarantine zones have been established, and at current count, this places about forty million people under lockdown.
Wuhan is in a state of panic. The city’s hospitals are flooding with thousands of people daily, all worried that their life is in danger. Officials have compared the virus to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), a coronavirus that killed nearly 800 people in 2002. In Ontario, SARS infected 375 people, mostly those working in the healthcare system, meaning there was a limited spread in the outside community.
It is important to note however, that in the majority of cases, the symptoms of this coronavirus have been fairly mild. The virus is marked by fevers, pneumonia like symptoms, and weak liver function. This means that any attempt to contain the virus will not be effective in containing the infection since those infected may not be aware of it.
Not only has this played a significant role in Wuhan’s local politics, but anxiety regarding the disease has infected the general population of North America. The virus has already begun to affect tourism in China, as Disneyland in Shanghai has been closed off and sections of the Great Wall of China are being restricted. The government of China is setting up emergency hospitals in Wuhan, and politicians warn of the “grave situation” their country is facing.
Yet, in times like this it is important to contextualize the actual threat this places on our communities. The reality is, most deadly diseases have been largely banished from the top causes of death in wealthy countries due to better living standards and modern medicine. It is very uncommon for a healthy person to die of infections that are transmitted between people. Keep in mind, this coronavirus is in the same family as the common cold, which, results in the death of approximately 56,000 people annually.
It can be unsettling to think that a world pandemic is on the rise. As the news releases more frightening stories regarding states of emergency, death tolls rising as hospitals flood with bodies.
A fundamental quality of most diseases is that they are transferred from one person to another. This can set a precedent of unreasonable fear around the health of our communities. This can in turn be misdirected towards other people, rather than the disease. When this fear begins to be directed at certain groups—similar to the HIV pandemic’s effect on homosexual individuals, it exaggerate divisions within the sociopolitical sphere, magnifying the economic impact of the situation while distracting from the control measures that are already in place to tackle the problem.