Ominous March of a Virus
The World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on 11 March 2020 with confirmed cases in more than 110 nations. The disease swiftly spread throughout the world.
Viruses can easily leapfrog to destinations round the globe with globalization of travel and trade. With this special report, YaleGlobal explores the spread and impact of such diseases.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in China prompted global caution. As a coronavirus, the disease shares symptoms with the common cold and SARS.
The new coronavirus, highly infectious, became especially challenging after emerging in China near two busy travel periods: the winter break for international college students and the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Symptoms include fever, difficulty breathing and a dry cough, reports the World Health Organization. People may be sick for 1 to 14 days before displaying symptoms. Chest radiographs showing bilateral lung infiltrates. Some patients do not display severe symptoms and 80 percent recover without special treatment. People over age 65 and and people of any age with compromised immune systems are especially vulnerable.
The World Health Organization offers advice:
- Clean hands often, using soap and water, or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer;
- When coughing and sneezing, cover mouth and nose with flexed elbow or tissue – throw tissue away immediately and wash hands;
- Avoid close contact with anyone with symptoms including a fever and dry cough;
- Those with a fever, cough and difficulty breathing should seek medical care early and share travel history with health providers;
- In areas experiencing cases, avoid direct unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals, and clean hands frequently;
- Avoid consumption of undercooked cooked animal products, and handle raw meat, milk or animal organs with care to avoid cross-contamination.
Communities can protect themselves and prevent the spread of COVID-19 by practicing social distancing: staying home, avoiding travel and crowded places, and practicing self-quarantine if exposed to anyone who tests positive, shows symptoms or reports a travel history to hot zones.
Individuals have tremendous control over the impact of COVID-19.
Coronaviruses are transmitted between animals and people. Investigations suggested that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans. The source of COVID-19 had not been determined as of March 2020.
"Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans," reports WHO. "A novel coronavirus (nCoV) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans." By mid-February, the World Health Organization named the disease COVID-19.
Nations vary on level of preparation, as well as staff and hospital beds.
Testing is key to tracking COVID-19 and data-sharing by public health agencies, preventing the disease's spread and allowing early treatment. The countries that offer more testing and practice transparency will have more confirmed cases.
A high school student developed a website that updates global COVID-19 data every 10 minutes based on official data. Major social media firms are trying to limit misinformation, prohibiting apps not linked with official health agencies. The data reports are only as good as the numbers provided by reliable testing, governments and public health agencies.
The Spread of a Coronavirus
Investigations showed that coronaviruses like the common cold and COVID-19 are spread mainly through droplet transmission. For example, if an infected person coughs or sneezes , the expelled droplets, if inhaled, can infect another person. Another possible mode of transmission is simple contact with contaminated objects.
China took the unprecedented step of shutting down public transportation and cancelling activities in multiple cities. Italy soon followed with national measures including closed schools and bans on public gatherings through the start of April.
“Ongoing preparedness and investment can go a long way in preventing global public health crises,” argues Sten Vermund, dean of the Yale School of Public Health.
Public health experts strive to delay the spread of COVID-19 to protect the most vulnerable people, prevent hospitals and care facilities from becoming overwhelmed, and buy time for development of a vaccine and other treatments.
Pandemics have historically altered societies, and governments strive to address both the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. When the new disease emerged in late 2019, the pace of growth for large economies around the world had already slowed. “This is a supply shock – not a demand shock that can be rectified with monetary stimulus,” explains Stephen Roach, economist and senior fellow with the Jackson Institute of Global Affairs. Governments have little choice but to take drastic steps that stop economies – travel restrictions, store closures, bans on public gatherings and more.
They also approve massive rescue packages to assist citizens and businesses ordered to stop most economic activities.
Roach urges governments to avoid premature focus on restarting economic engines that could trigger a relapse. The shock of COVID-19 is exposing the quest by government and corporate leaders for quantity in economic growth with too many compromises made on quality investment in infrastructure, public health, education and other systems that contribute to resilient societies.
Economist David Dapice also urges governments to prepare carefully in reopening economies. Governments and companies must examine balance sheets and debt levels, conducting swift cost-benefit analysis to determine which programs and jobs might survive. The medical and economic crisis will influence new behaviors and patterns around the world. Companies and individuals would be wise to build emergency stockpiles and savings to prepare for other inevitable crises of all types.
Recalling SARS and the 1918 Flu
Global public health officials strive to monitor the spread of any disease. The so-called Spanish flu of 1918-1919, which killed more than 20 million people, is never far from mind.
The speedy spread of a coronavirus from Wuhan, China, recalls the alarm associated with SARS. After the first reported death from SARS in Hong Kong, on March 4, 2003, the disease quickly spread across the globe, affecting citizens in 18 countries. The epidemic lasted for about four months.
Seventeen years later, there is better reporting and a rapid public health response. On December 31, 2019, the World Health Organization raised alarm about pneumonia-like cases in Wuhan, and China began research and quarantines. The first known death was reported January 11 and initally associated with a market in Wuhan. Less than a month later, cases were confirmed in 12 nations, with most in China. More than 110 nations report confirmed cases as of 11 March.
SARS did not cause nearly as many deaths as the flu, but new diseases spread rapidly due to the speed and intensification of globalization. In the early 20th century, people and troops traveling on trains and ships spread the flu. Affordable air travel and increased numbers of international air passengers have facilitated the movement of the coronaviruses between continents in a matter of days.