By Dushyant Shekhawat Jan. 22, 2020
The Wuhan Coronavirus, which has claimed nine lives in China and affected over 400 people, is the first global health scare of the new decade. It has now been detected in individuals in Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, and the US. Should India be worried?
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, and presently, reality is starting to feel like the first 30 minutes of a science-fiction film. In a sentence you can easily picture a movie news anchor sombrely delivering an important piece of exposition: Reports have emerged of a new, previously unidentified virus in a Chinese town, and the number of infected individuals and casualties is going only one way – up. But this is no Hollywood apocalypse film. The consequences are very real, and over 400 people have already been infected, with CNN reporting nine confirmed deaths. It’s the Wuhan Coronavirus, and it’s the first global health scare of the new decade.
The Wuhan Coronavirus isn’t just another case of the sniffles for hypochondriacs to worry about, it has all the makings to become a pandemic similar to its coronavirus cousin, SARS. SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, was also a coronavirus that originated in China, which infected more than 8,000 people and killed over 700 across South Asia in 2002 and 2003. The Wuhan Coronavirus, named for its city of origin, is from the same family of viruses as SARS, but was previously unidentified. Until mid-December, when it suddenly became the subject of international attention as it started spreading rapidly across mainland China.
People wearing face masks exit the Infectious Disease Centre at Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Justin Chin/Bloomberg
People wearing face masks exit the Infectious Disease Centre at Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
At this point, the virus has crossed international borders. It has now been detected in individuals in Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, USA, and suspected to have reached Australia. The Wuhan Coronavirus is hopping borders and crossing oceans with more ease than Nirav Modi, so it’s only sensible for India to exercise extreme caution, given how it’s literally China’s next-door neighbour.
Thankfully, the government has acted with the urgency befitting a global health emergency, and the Centre’s Ministry of Civil Aviation ordered screening of passengers arriving from China at seven Indian airports: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Kochi. This step was taken, along with the Ministry of Health also issuing a cautionary advisory to Indians travelling to China.
While the Wuhan Coronavirus may not have officially entered India, it has already infected one Indian national.
While the Wuhan Coronavirus may not have officially entered India, it has already infected one Indian national. This Sunday, January 19, News18 reported that Preeti Maheshwari, an Indian school teacher working in Shenzhen, China, became the first foreigner to have contracted the virus. The same report also mentions that over 500 Indian students study in medical colleges and universities in Wuhan, the city where the virus outbreak began and from where most cases were reported. Given that this time of year coincides with the academic break for Chinese New Year festivities, many of these Indian students will have made or be making their way back home to India, each one possibly a host for the virus. Happy Chinese New Year?
The Wuhan Coronavirus’ origins in China are troubling not only because of China’s proximity to India, but also because of China’s shoddy record of containing such pandemic viral outbreaks through state intervention and international cooperation. “During the SARS outbreak, Chinese authorities initially downplayed the dangers and censored coverage, preventing people from realising the severity of the virus and taking action in time to stop its spread,” reads a CNN report while detailing why China’s track record in fighting such diseases is less-than stellar.
An ambulance worker in protective clothing boards an ambulance outside the Infectious Disease Centre at Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020. Justin Chin/Bloomberg
An ambulance worker in protective clothing boards an ambulance outside the Infectious Disease Centre at Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2020.
Already, there is cause for concern. While initial reports stated the virus was unlikely to spread between humans, Chinese health authorities have now said there is “definitely human-to-human transmission.” Now, armed with that information and the knowledge of how public places in India are composed of basically 99 pe rcent teeming crowds, you start to feel apprehensive about what would happen if a contagious and possibly lethal virus were added to the mix.
Granted, panic is an appropriate response to the words “global virus outbreak”, but let’s not abandon all hope just yet. We’ve seen SARS, we’ve seen MERS, we’ve seen swine flu, bird flu, and Zika. The emergence of these new, admittedly terrifying diseases lends itself to a doomsday narrative, but so far, modern medicine has been up to the challenge of containing them before they spread beyond control. So it’s all well and good to stay informed and alert, but remember, in a situation like this, the best thing you can do is wash your hands.