The coronavirus outbreak has gone global, infecting thousands of people across every province in China and at least 18 other countries. The World Health Organization declared the virus an international emergency on Jan. 30, but it’s been two months in the making. The outbreak began in early December, when the disease first made the jump from animals to humans, likely at an open-air seafood and meat market in Wuhan, China’s fifth-largest city.
The common cold is also caused by the coronavirus, but so are more deadly viruses like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) or Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). Like SARS and MERS, the Wuhan coronavirus likely originated in bats, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and recent research, although civet cats and camels are thought to be involved in the transmission of SARS and MERS to humans.
What is China doing?
Patients have begun arriving at Huanggang’s Dabie Mountain Regional Medical Centre, converted from empty building to dedicated coronavirus hospital in just two days.
Wuhan is under total lockdown, in what’s been dubbed “modern history’s largest-ever quarantine.” Authorities have shut down public transit, limited car use and even barred travel between districts in the city of 11 million people.
Fifteen other cities in China are under similar quarantines, affecting about 50 million people. That’s like quarantining the entire population of New York City six times over, or putting one in every seven Americans under lockdown.
Some health experts worry that the measures could cause mass panic or result in food and medicine shortages. Others say the lockdowns were too late. About five million people fled Wuhan before the city-wide quarantine went into effect, afraid of being trapped inside.
Celebrations for the Lunar New Year, which began Jan. 25, also hampered the Chinese government’s containment efforts. The holiday is one of China’s most important, and is typically a rare opportunity for members of the Chinese diaspora to visit and families to reunite.
What is the U.S. doing?
There are five confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus in the U.S., including one in Arizona, two in California, one in Chicago and one in Washington state. On Jan. 27, the CDC issued its highest level travel warning, recommending against all nonessential travel to China, while on Jan. 30, the State Department issued a “do not travel” warning, its strictest.
At least 20 airports in the U.S. are screening passengers for the Wuhan coronavirus. In a speech on Jan. 27, Vice President Mike Pence said these airports collectively take in about 90 percent of passengers traveling from China. Airports ask travelers to fill out a questionnaire, take their temperatures, and evaluate those who seem sick, to determine if they should be hospitalized.
There are about 1,000 U.S. citizens trapped within the Wuhan quarantine. On Jan. 29, a State Department-charted plane with 201 Americans landed at an Air Force base near Los Angeles. The passengers, mostly U.S. consulate employees and their families, were screened twice in China, monitored during their flight, screened twice more during a stopover in Alaska and underwent more screenings upon landing in California. They’ll be monitored at the base for three days and, once they go home, two more weeks.
Tickets on these State Department flights out of Wuhan are at $1,000 a seat, leaving escape out of reach for many American families living in the city.
What’s the rest of the world doing?
The virus has spread to nearly 20 countries, including places as far-flung as Australia, Finland and the United Arab Emirates. British Airways and Air Canada have suspended all flights to and from China, alongside airlines based in Indonesia and South Korea.
In Germany, Japan, Taiwan and Vietnam, the virus is spreading among people who weren’t in China when the outbreak began. France plans to evacuate 1,000 citizens from Wuhan, the U.K. 300 citizens and Germany 90.
News reports and memes spark accusations of racism
As the world reacts to the epidemic, news coverage and social media content have angered many. Reports of the outbreak’s genesis at a wet market have led to coverage emphasizing the “exotic wildlife” sold at markets and China’s “appetite for ‘warm meat.’” Some social media activists have accused Western media of drawing on racist stereotypes to supplement sensationalized stories. Other publications have gotten key details wrong, like mixing up the locations of China’s major cities.
Jiayi Shen, a Chinese sophomore at Northwestern’s Qatar campus, said that she was disappointed in the lack of public sympathy on social media, noting the absence of a “Pray for Wuhan” online movement in comparison to other recent health and environmental disasters.
“If you see the comments on the BBC or any big news media, like on Twitter, there’s a lot of comments about how Chinese people eat everything and spread their virus,” said Shen.
Hashtags and Wuhan coronavirus-dedicated meme pages have sprung up online, prompting a backlash from people affected by the virus. Some Chinese people have experienced racism as a result of the outbreak and are hitting back online.
Should we be scared?
So far, the Wuhan coronavirus has a death rate of 2%, while SARS had a rate of 10% and MERS 30%, according to the World Health Organization. The CDC says that the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak is a “serious public health threat” but that the virus is “NOT” actively spreading from person to person in the U.S. But on Jan. 30, in the first person-to-person transmission inside the U.S., the CDC confirmed that the Chicago coronavirus victim had passed the disease on to her husband.
Some disease experts, including Northwestern’s Dr. Robert Murphy, emphasize that the Wuhan coronavirus doesn’t yet have a vaccine or treatment, and is spreading rapidly. China now has more cases of the Wuhan coronavirus than it did of SARS in an outbreak during the early 2000s.
The virus has pneumonia-like symptoms, including a cough, sore throat, fever and difficulty breathing.
The WHO called for a meeting on Jan. 30 to decide whether the epidemic should be declared a global health emergency. The status would enable the international coordination needed to develop a unified approach.
“The whole world needs to be on alert now. The whole world needs to take action,” said Dr. Michael Ryan, director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.
Article Thumbnail: Gianluca Tomasello (CC BY-SA)