The sudden battle against coronavirus

| Updated on January 28, 2020

A SARS-like disease has paralysed China and transmitted fear across the world

At the time of writing, over 80 people have died and nearly 3,000 people have contracted a new form of coronavirus, of which Hubei province alone (and the city of Wuhan) accounts for about half the cases and 76 deaths. This time’s coronavirus attack, dubbed 2019-nCOV by the WHO, is a throwback to the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic of 2002, again a coronavirus, which claimed 800 lives and infected about 10 times that number of people. Seventeen years later, it can be said that China has been relatively more open about the status of the infection. While its large cities are under ‘shut down’, over a dozen countries have reported infected cases, in all amounting to about 45, but no deaths so far. The cases pertain to those returning from China. India must be on high alert, given the much higher levels of business engagement with China since SARS first broke out. Four suspected cases have been reported from Hyderabad. To be sure, the WHO has so far not declared a ‘public health emergency’, as there have been no reported cases of secondary transmission (the traveller concerned transmitting the disease to others) outside China.

However, what is particularly worrisome about this ailment is that its symptoms manifest themselves about two weeks after the person is infected, so it can escape detection. The symptoms imitate a common flu, which could further delay the diagnosis. Treatment is symptomatic, that is, for pneumonia-like conditions. The weak and the vulnerable, children and the elderly, are at high risk. Travel to and from China should be restricted for a while, and screening at airports and ports should be stepped up. The Centre should issue advisories and embark on an awareness drive; without, however, generating panic.

What should, however, assume top priority on the global health agenda is the state of China’s live animal markets. Animals of astounding variety, from seafood to wild game and reptiles, share space with humans. SARS originated in bats and jumped to civets and then to human beings; the origins of the current 2019-nCOV are believed to be similar. The citizens of Wuhan have spoken out against the fetish for consuming exotic game, often driven by superstitious beliefs. It is also a primordial marker of social status. Meanwhile, China’s laws perhaps need to be tightened to restrict the breeding, sale and trade of such species. Conservationists such as Jane Goodall and Lawrence Anthony have described in their works the politically connected mafia that controls the trade in animal parts, the suppliers essentially being African countries. It is intriguing that bodies such as the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora have not been in the thick of action. They have merely passed strictures against supplying countries, without looking at the demand side. A sincere, coordinated response is called for.

Published on January 27, 2020

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