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Worry, but not panic

/ 05:07 AM January 29, 2020

In the medical and scientific community, it is known simply as 2019-nCoV, which media never uses. Sometimes it does spell out nCoV, which means novel coronavirus. More often we read, with some dread, of “SARS-like coronavirus,” referring to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome outbreak several years ago.

No name, and yet the numbers of those infected and the deaths are rising, with a slow but clear spread beyond China’s borders.

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(I’ve been checking the South China Morning Post [SCMP] website regularly for confirmed cases and deaths. Tuesday morning at 8, it was 2,935 cases and 82 deaths. Right now, at 1 p.m., as I prepare to email my column to editors, the numbers are 4,559 cases and 106 deaths.)

There are signs of panic everywhere, the mad rush to buy groceries and face masks, faces of people distraught and desperate. It was not a happy Chinese new year.

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Medical responses add to people’s fears. Although the World Health Organization (WHO) continues to insist that no travel restrictions are needed, China’s leaders are not taking chances, imposing a lockdown on Wuhan City, where the outbreak started, and other nearby urban areas, affecting 35 million people, about three times the population of Metro Manila.

An incisive column by David Dodwell in the Hong-Kong-based SCMP points out that we seem to have regular global panic syndromes in recent history: the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), swine flu or H1N1, SARS and avian flu.

Dodwell also tries to put the figures in perspective, pointing out the number of people who die each year from diarrhea (presumably infectious, 1.6 million), malaria (435,000), influenza (290,000 to 650,000 people), traffic accidents (1.35 million), murders (500,000).

Dodwell is right about the dangers of panicking, but we shouldn’t swing to the other extreme of complacency. We are so geographically close to China, literally at its front steps. We are connected to China by dozens of flights each day. Boracay, until recently, had chartered flights coming in directly from Wuhan.We in the Philippines need to be concerned enough to plan ahead. Right now, people coming in from China are asked to go into semi-quarantine (a term I had to coin, for want of a better one), minimizing their contact with people for 10 days.

This has to do with the incubation period of the virus, now determined to last from 1 to 14 days. If during that period, they begin to have fever, coughing and respiratory distress, they are supposed to report immediately to health authorities, to determine if they have the virus.

How contagious is the virus? So far, the medical experts don’t know. They do observe that most infected people are aged 40 to 60, but cases have been reported, too, in children.

How deadly is the virus? Based on reported cases, it is about 3 percent. The deaths have been mostly among patients with other underlying health problems such as diabetes.There is obviously no cure yet, but the Chinese are using anti-HIV drugs to treat patients. Meanwhile, there is international cooperation between the US National Institutes of Health and Chinese scientists to develop vaccines.

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I do worry that if we get infections here, the virus may spread quickly and we would not be able to cope as China does. China is almost finished with building a hospital that will be totally devoted to this virus’ patients. Construction time? Six days!

Our response will probably be more like that of Hong Kong, with residents not trusting the government. When an abandoned city housing block in that city was designated as a quarantine center for the novel coronavirus, residents in the area protested with road blocks and firebombed the building.

I think, too, of the panic-buying and hoarding of face masks when Taal erupted. Anticipate another mad rush once we have coronavirus cases. The WHO is not sure how much protection surgical masks can give. It recommends other preventive measures such as frequent handwashing, avoiding close contact with people suffering from acute respiratory infections, avoiding close contact with live or dead animals (because of still unconfirmed suspicions the virus may have come from wild animals used as food), and “cough etiquette.”

There you have it. I’m sure I’ll have to do more columns about this still-mysterious virus.

[email protected]

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TAGS: 2019-nCov, novel coronavirus, SARS, South China Morning Post
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