Plague
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - February 1, 2020 - 12:00am

This pesky virus is bad for business.

The novel corona virus (nCoV) has been spreading to many countries from its epicenter in Wuhan, China. Governments have responded to its spread by putting airports at crisis mode to intercept possible carriers of the virus. The health establishments in most countries are setting up tight nets to contain the disease.

In times like these, we are happy we have governments. The most basic thing governments must do is to protect its citizens – in this case, protect them from a plague. Only governments have the means to fight back against the threat of mass contamination. But if there is panic, all those efforts might still seem short.

While the response must be comprehensive, the health authorities are fully aware about the need to keep the public informed but not duly alarmed. Dr. Manuel Dayrit, who was Health Secretary when the SARS outbreak happened, says that fear spreads much more quickly than viruses. He knows whereof he speaks.

Last Thursday, the Health Department confirmed we have a case of the nCoV. The victim is a 38-year-old woman who originated from Wuhan and arrived in the country Jan. 21 via Hong Kong. She travelled to Cebu and Dumaguete cities and all contact tracing is now being done.

The woman is reported to be well. But her case underscores one problem we have fighting this virus: it is asymptomatic. People who do not appear sick could spread the virus. Those fancy thermal scanners at the airport are of limited use.

After official confirmation that the virus has arrived on our shores, I noticed more people wearing protective masks in the malls. Those masks may be futile as well.

A public health official observes that N95 masks are indeed effective in protecting against 95 percent of microbes. But they can only stop microbes that are 0.3 microns or larger. The nCoV virus is only 0.1 microns. 

Density

Much has been said about globalization helping spread an epidemic faster. In this age of air travel, people could carry viruses across borders quickly.

Not enough has been said about the function of population densities in the rapid spread of diseases. Modern civilization has become highly urbanized. People are packed together in congested cities. They contaminate others very quickly.

Even the main suspects for this virus, the bats, exist densely packed in caves. That enables the virus to be shared among them and then transferred to humans.

Congestion allows for viruses to be passed around rapidly. There is, however, no way to decongest human habitat to protect against this disease.

Being simple organisms, viruses can mutate very quickly. New virus mutations defy existing antidotes and often catch us unprepared. Modern pharmaceuticals must respond quickly to outbreaks of novel diseases we cannot vaccinate again.

Because this particular virus shows ability to mutate faster than modern medicine can respond, this epidemic could grow very large. It could grow faster than the SARS and MERS epidemics we saw years ago.

It could become truly virulent like the ebola virus did in Africa. In which case, the response will need to be truly heroic.

In the same manner, it could mutate to something no more murderous than the virus that brings the common cold. But let’s not bet on that and be complacent.

Isolation

 The Chinese government responded to the spread of this new virus by locking down Wuhan, a city of 11 million, and eventually the entire province of Hubei. Only a government like China has could afford to do something on this scale. In any other country, there will be rioting in the streets.

Isolation, both of entire cities and individual victims of the virus, is the only way to contain an epidemic like this one. Most other countries have quarantined individuals suspected of infection.

Isolation costs. Wuhan, for instance, is a manufacturing city that hosts much of China’s automotive and electronic industries. It is also an educational center hosting a lot of foreign students.

In our case, inbound travel from China is now tightly curtailed – at great loss of tourism receipts. Several carriers have announced suspension of flights coming from China. That will cost our tourism industry, especially at peak season for Chinese tourists.

This epidemic, if it continues to grow, could cripple China’s economy in a way that US sanctions could not. Factories are closed. The movement of people is tightly restricted. Business is at near standstill.

There is probably no choice but to accept those economic costs. Severe measures will keep this plague from running wild.

Experts

When Taal Volcano erupted, we trusted our volcanologists. They enforced large-scale evacuations that were both painful and costly. But that was better. We have seen that in the zero casualties directly attributable to the eruption.

In the face of an epidemic, we have put our fate in the hands of our health experts. So far, they have performed well. They have set up the protocols for throwing a tight net against the epidemic, stretching from the main hospitals to the smallest barangay clinics.

Fighting an epidemic is like fighting a war. All our institutional resources must be thrown into the effort. Given that resources are scarce, it is better to let the experts calibrate our response.

Two opposition senators have attempted to grandstand by issuing calls to summarily ban all Chinese people from entering the country. It is a twist on the anti-China scare they have been peddling for months.

It isn’t fair to stoke the public alarm with a dose of xenophobia.

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