Are we prepared for the new coronavirus?


    NOTHING gets entire countries on edge like a public health emergency, and the first month of 2020 has brought exactly that because of a new coronavirus said to be first seen in humans in Wuhan, China.

    Wuhan, little known to the rest of the world prior to the outbreak caused by the new coronavirus, is a city of 11 million people. As of this writing, the Chinese government has placed Wuhan on lockdown, along with 11 other cities. The arrival of international tour groups was stopped starting Monday, in an effort to contain the spread of the illness which has infected thousands and claimed the lives of over 50 people.

    The geography itself is problematic: Wuhan is located in central China, and is a major railway hub that services multiple cities. And the timing is just as bad: millions are set to go home for Lunar New Year (more commonly known as Chinese New Year here at home), multiplying the possibility of contracting and spreading the illness beyond Wuhan’s borders.

    The way China has handled this public health crisis does not inspire confidence thus far. As it did with the outbreak of severe respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, it seems China has underestimated the potential of the new coronavirus. It is only now that we are seeing drastic action from the Chinese government, when the first known transmission to humans happened sometime in mid-December. One patient in Wuhan is said to have infected 14 other medical personnel, raising fears of super spreaders of the disease.

    Similarly, the World Health Organization has held off declaring what is known as a “public health emergency of international concern,” despite the potential of the virus to infect many around the world. Already, France, Australia, Japan, and the United States have declared cases within its territories. Ma Xiaowei, China’s Health Commission Minister, confirmed that the disease can spread even during the 10-day incubation period, when a person is already infected but does not show any outward symptoms like fever or cough.

    This development should be of particular importance to the Department of Health, as it renders insufficient our current screening procedures for new arrivals. Right now, our authorities screen arrivals using temperature checks and look for other overt signs to detect possible carriers. Arrivals from Wuhan or other known points of infection are screened more carefully. Remember, we’ve been through this before during the MERS COV scare, and while our personnel are experienced at this, the fact that this new virus is contagious even at the incubation should give our officials pause and cause to reassess our existing protocols.

    While the developments are certainly most concerning, countries are taking steps to ensure that the virus does not spread within its borders. Authorities do not have to wait for a pandemic to be declared to close our shores temporarily to arrivals from China, as Taiwan has. The complication is the current administration’s relationship with China: taking drastic measures to temporarily keep mainland Chinese visitors out of the Philippines might be viewed by Beijing as contributing against the everything-under-control narrative its government is trying to portray, even with millions of lives of its own citizens at stake. The Duterte administration’s response will be a telling one: will personal interest prevail over national interest? (See the threat to revoke the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, case in point).

    It seems that the strength of Chinese internet censors is also being tested, as the Chinese people take to Weibo to express their alarm and displeasure at government’s response to the crisis. It’s been days, and the posts continue to come, and the scrubbers can’t keep up.

    Videos of the state of things in Wuhan are also being posted by the dozen on YouTube, for all to see.

    Which brings to the fore the question you might have: as private citizens, what can we do to avoid the illness? For one, wash your hands regularly. Wear a mask while in public places. Apart from making sure we don’t fall ill, we should also be cautious about what we share on social media. Share only verified information from trustworthy sources to avoid adding to the inevitable feeling of hysteria one gets in these situations.

    Lastly, a reminder that whatever our differences are with the government of China, let us remember that the Chinese people are victims too. I’ve seen one too many posts bordering on racism when it comes to containing the spread of the illness. Yes, we are all afraid for the new coronavirus to enter our country. Now, take that fear and imagine the people of Wuhan.