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Views on the News: Coronavirus outbreak

 On Dec. 31, 2019, the World Health Organization was alerted by the Chinese government of several cases of the coronavirus, a series of viruses that lead to respiratory illnesses, in Wuhan, a port city of 11 million individuals. Several of the initially infected individuals worked at the city's Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market, which was shut down on Jan.1, 2020. As of Jan. 27, the death toll from the virus has risen to 106 people, with 4,515 people in China infected. Initially WHO was reluctant to identify the coronavirus as a public emergency of international concern. However, as of Jan. 30, WHO has declared the coronavirus outbreak a global emergency as the death toll rises to 170 in China. Do you think WHO’s delay to declare this a public emergency of international concern was a reasonable effort to limit unnecessary public panic and learn more about the virus, or an unnecessary risk? Additionally, beyond WHO's actions, how should Beijing and other world governments be responding to this health concern? 

Prof.Sarah Curi (HSSP)

This declaration alone will not stop this virus, nor will reactionary quarantines. Concerted, coordinated interdisciplinary efforts will. To most effectively tailor our preventative efforts, we must invest in research into the unique characteristics of 2019-nCoV, including how it spreads and the severity of resulting illness, as well as affordable vaccines. Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past.  Accurate and timely information is essential.  The CDC explains that “this is a very serious public health threat.”  Yet, right now, the seasonal flu is a greater threat in the U.S. and worldwide. History informs us that panic serves no one and that the vitriol that fuels xenophobia is deadly. I will listen to those most affected by the social, political, and economic disruptions and continue to wash many hands, seek to learn and share facts, and stand strong against racism, as many are in France:  #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (“I am not a virus”).

Sarah Curi is a lecturer in Health: Science, Society and Policy, and in Legal Studies. 

Prof.Thuy Lam (HSSP)

The W.H.O delayed their decision on whether to declare the recent coronavirus outbreak as a global public health emergency because they needed additional information and did not want to create unwarranted panic, especially given the timing around the Lunar New Year in which many travel to visit family and friends.  At this point, worry will not accomplish anything and does not help. This W.H.O declaration provides only recommendations for how countries should respond, not necessarily how they will respond.  Nonetheless, it provides the opportunity for countries to have a united front and in fact, I think that Beijing, Vietnam, Australia and other world governments are responding in an appropriate manner by placing a travel ban for flights in and out of China, and placing a quarantine and monitoring those who have been traveling to or from Wuhan as well.  There remains a lot of uncertainty at the moment, and it is likely that we will see more cases in the U.S., but what that means in terms of numbers, single or double digits, remains to be seen. The fact that we have seen such a rapid increase in the number of cases and deaths is not simply because it is more infectious but likely a mix of things, including the fact that coronavirus presents with similar symptoms such as a cold, increasing the potential for missed cases; the lack of appropriate laboratory equipment to test and confirm cases; as well as irregular and irresponsible reporting. The best thing we can do right now is to practice basic hygiene (e.g., handwashing, cough and sneeze etiquette — that is, cough and sneeze into your elbow to reduce aerosolizing the virus), practice kindness, and stay vigilant of the news.  

Thuy Lam is a lecturer in Health: Science, Society and Policy, and in Biology. 

Prof. Elanah Uretsky (IGS)

Hesitation on the part of the W.H.O to declare 2019-nCoV a Public Health Emergency of International Concern was a nod to the Chinese government. Declaring this virus a PHEIC, raises international concern and reflects on the country where the virus originated. It can also affect their economy. I think the W.H.O only decided to declare 2019-nCoV a PHEIC when they realized the virus may start to spread to countries with weak health systems. When and if that happens, it will pose a serious public health threat to those countries and the countries they are connected to through travel. Transmission of the virus to Africa is certainly possible, given the large amount of travel and trade between China and Africa. Most of the countries involved in that flow of trade have weak health systems and will benefit from the funds released as a result of a declaration of a PHEIC. 

Elanah Uretsky is an assistant professor in the International and Global Studies Program.

Dhwani Hariharan

Declaring a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) is W.H.O’s way of heightening a global leadership response against the disease, reducing transmission, informing the public and assisting affected states. Declaring a PHEIC provides W.H.O additional powers to enforce recommendations. However, as such declarations can severely hurt travel, trade and employment in affected countries, they should be applied only after obtaining compelling scientific evidence that mandates temporary restrictions. Hence, W.H.O’s brief delay was reasonable and justifiable. Conforming to W.H.O and CDC recommendations, governments globally must focus on restricting nonessential travel, increasing screening and quarantining of suspected cases, and developing a vaccine against the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Furthermore, it is important to battle 2019-nCoV in solidarity. In this time of crisis, we must remember to lend support to the individuals and countries most affected, as opposed to extreme travel bans, racist comments and other xenophobic responses.

Dhwani Hariharan is a Ph.D. student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management studying Health Policy.

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