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Virus spreads globally – but don’t panic yet

The world has watched in trepidation this week as the Covid-19 coronavirus disease has rapidly spread around the globe. As of Thursday afternoon, it had reached at least 48 countries, with new cases outside of China exceeding those in China. Of particular concern are large clusters of infections in Iran, Italy and South Korea.

Authorities, however, are urging people to remain calm, and with good reason — panic will only exacerbate the situation and, despite all the concerning headlines, it is not yet warranted. The World Health Organisation (WHO) is treating the outbreak with the gravity it deserves, but it has held off on declaring it a global pandemic.

“Using the word pandemic carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems. It may also signal that we can no longer contain the virus, which is not true,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general.

Furthermore, said Ghebreyesus, 41 out of 54 countries on the African continent can now test for Covid-19 cases.

So far, more than 82000 people have been infected with the disease, and nearly 3000 have died. But there is some good news: the rate of new infections appears to be slowing in China, indicating that the strict quarantine measures implemented there appear to be working.

Bruce Aylward, the public health specialist who led the WHO’s fact-finding mission to Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak in China, said there was much that other countries could learn from China’s aggressive response. This included preventing travel to and from areas where the virus has occurred; preparing medical supplies and hospital space in anticipation; using data to trace how the virus spreads; and urging people to wash their hands.

He urged governments to act quickly. “Big conclusion for the world is — it’s simply not ready,” Aylward said on his return from China this week. “Folks, this is a rapidly escalating epidemic in different places that we’ve got to tackle superfast to prevent a pandemic.”

In response to public health concerns, organisers are cancelling major conferences and sporting fixtures in or near affected areas. Significantly, China’s National People’s Congress, the central event of its political calendar, was postponed for the first time since the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s.

More significant still is the fate of the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Although organisers currently maintain that it will go ahead as scheduled, if the outbreak in Japan worsens it will almost certainly have to be moved or cancelled.

On the economic front, stock markets around the world have tumbled as it becomes clear that China’s quarantine measures have already had a significant effect on the global supply chain. The International Monetary Fund has cut China’s economic growth forecasts from 6.0% in January to 5.6% in late February.

So far, only two cases of the virus have been reported on the African continent — one in Egypt and another in Algeria.

A study in the journal The Lancet said that Egypt, Algeria, South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia are the African countries at greatest risk of importing the virus, because of their close air links with affected areas in other parts of the world. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention is running workshops to prepare African governments to diagnose and contain the virus.

(John McCann/M&G)

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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