Until this month, most Filipinos had never heard of Wuhan, the central and most populous city in China’s Hubei province. But now, Wuhan is everywhere in the news, identified as the source of the newest medical scourge in the world, the novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV.
The coronavirus, belonging to the same family as two other deadly viruses, the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), has infected over 1,300 people and killed 41 people as of Saturday.
In a time of daily intercontinental flights, the world is much smaller and disease can spread at lightning speed. China has taken the unprecedented step of locking down Wuhan—a city of 11 million people—and now 18 other cities.
Over 56 million people are estimated to be affected by these restrictions, especially as the country is in the midst of the Lunar New Year celebrations.
The virus—which is transmitted human to human and does not respond to antibiotics—has already begun spreading around the world, with multiple cases confirmed in France, Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.
In the Philippines, the Department of Health has tried to allay public fears by announcing that there is no confirmed case of 2019-nCoV in the country yet.
A suspected case of a 5-year-old boy from Wuhan who got hospitalized in Cebu turned out to be negative for 2019-nCoV after lab tests in Australia.
“Let me just underscore that there are still many blind spots with regard to the novel coronavirus and the information stream continues,” said Health Secretary Francisco Duque III.
“This is not a death sentence. This will be a death sentence only when a person who has a severe disease or preexisting conditions like cancer catches the virus, because chemotherapy will cause a weak immune system.”
Researchers say that while 2019-nCoV is milder than SARS or MERS, the high body temperature and flu-like symptoms associated with coronaviruses may not also be effective indicators.
According to a Bloomberg report, China has admitted that “some of those with the virus may not have a fever and the pathogen’s incubation period could be up to two weeks.”
That makes detection even more difficult, because “the lack of fever as a symptom means that temperature screening—the main method now being deployed at airports and transport hubs to control the outbreak—would fail to pick up on at least some cases.”
Could such a slip-up happen here?
An ever-rising number of tourists and migrant workers have been streaming into the Philippines from mainland China—1.63 million tourists from January to November 2019 alone, up 40 percent from the year before.
More critically, the Philippines receives hundreds of Boracay-bound tourists direct from Wuhan.
When news of the 2019-nCoV emerged, the Bureau of Quarantine began screening passengers of Chinese flights that flew into Kalibo International Airport (the Ninoy Aquino International Airport does not receive direct flights from Wuhan).
But no flight ban was declared until only last Thursday—after similar moves by Taiwan and China itself, which canceled thousands of flights and imposed a lockdown of the epicenter and nearby cities.
Some 600 Chinese tourists from Wuhan were still able to arrive in the Philippines before the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) announced the flight ban.
The government now says all 634 tourists will be returned to Wuhan as scheduled on Monday, with no extensions allowed; they would also not be allowed to travel to other parts of the country.
CAB executive director Carmelo Arcilla said no “untoward incidents” or developments relating to the tourists’ health have happened, but that they were doing this to be prudent—a stance the authorities could have adopted early.
Extra care, prudence and vigilance must be the watchwords for now, as cases and deaths continue to rise and no vaccine is yet available.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has so far not classified 2019-nCoV as an international epidemic.
“This is an emergency in China, but it has not yet become a global health emergency,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
In the meantime, many Filipinos stare furtively out from behind face masks and flinch at every cough and sneeze.
The WHO is reminding everyone to practice good hygiene primarily through frequent and proper handwashing, staying at home when sick or avoiding contact with sick people, and covering one’s mouth with a tissue or mask when sneezing or coughing.
Just as important is disposing of the used tissue or mask properly. Here, as in Wuhan and elsewhere, it is best to worry enough not to take chances.
For more information about the novel coronavirus click here.
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