When the Plague Strikes, We Need to Unite

Brendan Sheppard, Queens University.


The Wuhan coronavirus has dominated headlines for the past week. Epidemics like this have a unique staying power. With new, shocking numbers daily, it’s easy to justify yet another story to engage the fear and panic elicited by news of a deadly novel flu claiming lives across the globe. Here at Inquire, we published an articlejust last week, covering the spread of this new sickness. Those numbers have been eclipsed by the current tallies; as of late Saturday, there had been 304 deaths in China, plus the first international death in the Philippines. 14 510 cases have been reported worldwide.

Those are just the numbers.

One of the most concerning factors in this epidemic is the coronavirus’ apparent capacity for asymptomatic transmission, wherein a person displaying no symptoms transmits the virus to someone else. This distinguishes the 2019-nCoV strain from other epidemic-associated coronaviruses, such as SARS, which could only be transmitted when symptoms were apparent. The ease with which the common cold persists demonstrates just much more difficult it is to contain a virus capable of asymptomatic.

For health officials, being aware of a virus’ behaviour, like asymptomatic transmission, is of paramount importance. The first and most vital response to any health crisis is to gather information. For a virus with a potentially global impact, research is performed and published by everyone, everywhere. It is funded, prioritized, and made readily available for others to build on and respond to, because egos and reputations lose importance when the health and wellbeing of thousands of people are at stake. For the most part, governments have followed the example that these scientists set.

Unfortunately, until January 20th – when the virus had already taken three lives, and the first case had been confirmed in the US – Chinese officials worked to downplay the severity of the epidemic, discouraging healthcare professionals from providing warnings and investigating those who ‘spread rumours’. They have since recognized the severity of the situation, and responded accordingly. But experts have questioned whether the severity of this outbreak could have been limited if officials had acknowledged the virus earlier and responded appropriately from the outset. Lives could have been saved, and the spread of the virus might have been limited.

Limiting the spread of the virus is especially important, and was the primary cause for the WHO’s recognition of 2019-nCoV as a global health emergency. Not every country has the ability to build a pair of hospitals in under a week. Not every country has a health care system robust enough to control an outbreak of this virus as effectively as countries like Canada and the US might. As the virus spreads internationally, health cares systems and emergency responses are being tested.

In an ideal world, they wouldn’t need to be.

But in the real world, the virus has spread, is spreading. Countries are closing their borders, blocking flights, banning travel. Governments are stepping forward to stop the spread of the virus and ensure the safety of their citizens at home and abroad.

The narrative of this epidemic could be about xenophobia, fear, and dangerous politics (for more on that perspective, read here ). Or maybe, it could serve to contrast the other largest story of the past month, in which tensions have heightened between the US and Iran. The response to this epidemic could be a message about just how possible and powerful an internationally united response can be. Health emergencies like this one remind us that our biggest threats need not be each other. If we, as nations, need to have an enemy with whom we won’t reason, let it be a virus.



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