The New Virus Disrupting the World – COVID-19

| February 29, 2020 | 0 Comments

The Discovery of a New Disease
The beginning of last December, a never-before-seen disease emerged in Wuhan, the capital city of Hubei province in eastern China. The symptoms were not so unusual (fever, cough, shortness of breath), but when medical workers realized that numerous cases of the pneumonia-like illness were appearing, they investigated. They discovered that this was a brand new human disease and was caused by a virus of the coronavirus family. Coronaviruses are well known, causing illnesses ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases like polio. Some local health workers immediately began to sound the alarm, remembering the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003 that was also caused by a coronavirus and also originated in China. The SARS outbreak sickened 8,098 people in 17 countries and killed 774 before being contained. Initially, though, the Chinese government downplayed the new illness, and eight residents of Wuhan (including at least one doctor) were interviewed by the police for the spreading of “false information” among the public.

The Outbreak Epicenter

Wikimedia Commons, edited by the author

A Brief History
The new coronavirus was eventually traced to a market in Wuhan where meat (including wild animals) was being sold for consumption. Coronaviruses that do not normally sicken humans are known to exist in wild animals such as bats and pangolins, and it was quickly suspected that one of these viruses had jumped the species gap and was now infecting humans. This turned out to be true. Once the origin was discovered, the next question was whether the virus could be passed from human-to-human or whether transmission was strictly animal-to-human. This was quickly answered as the number of cases of illness swelled to include individuals who had not been in contact with infected animals.

It was at this point in approximately the first week of January that the world at large began to take notice of the new coronavirus. Chinese officials reversed their stance of trying to keep the outbreak hushed up and began taking serious measures to stop the spread of the virus. The United States Center for Disease Control issued a travel warning for U.S. citizens travelling to Wuhan. Airports around the world began screening passengers traveling from China, pointing infrared thermometers at them as they came off the plane. In spite of all precautions, the coronavirus spread outside of China, first showing up in Thailand on January 13th. Japan, Macau, and South Korea soon reported cases, and before long, countries around the world were discovering the coronavirus within their borders at the average rate of one country per day. The World Health Organization had been monitoring the situation closely, and, when cases were discovered outside of China, admitted that the outbreak was of international concern.

Wuhan, a city of 11 million people, was placed under lockdown on January 23. Highways were blocked off and all forms of public transportation were brought to a virtual halt. Within a couple of days, the quarantine was expanded to include another 40 million people in the cities surrounding Wuhan. Other countries began taking more drastic measures to protect their citizens in China and at home. North Korea and Mongolia completely closed their borders with China and Hong Kong severely restricted travel to mainland China. The United States chartered aircraft to fly its citizens out of the quarantine area and numerous other nations followed suit. At this point, over 4,500 people had confirmed cases of the virus and 106 people had died, with the majority of cases and deaths occurring in Hubei province.

The Chinese New Year fell on January 25th this year. The New Year is a major holiday that draws Chinese from all over the world back to their hometowns to celebrate with their families. The Chinese government realized the hazard that this could create as everyone returned to their homes after the celebrations, carrying the virus with them, so the New Year holiday was extended until February 2nd. The point was to keep people away from work and at home, in an effort to keep infection rates down. The Wuhan government commissioned the building of two emergency hospitals that were to be built in record time. The hospitals had a combined capacity of 2,600 beds and each was constructed in 6-7 days. Office buildings, sports arenas, and auditoriums around the area were seized and converted into temporary hospitals and medical teams were called in to Wuhan to help care for the sick.

The quarantine possibly helped to keep transmission rates low in China, but it was too late to keep the virus reasonably contained. It was already traveling the world. The first week of February, the virus was discovered on board a cruise ship carrying over 3,500 people on an Asian cruise. The ship was anchored in Japan and all passengers and crew were quarantined aboard. On February 6th, Doctor Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who notified the public of the strange new disease and one of the individuals questioned by the police, died of the coronavirus. He was posthumously hailed as a hero for his early warning. On February 11th, WHO announced that name of the disease caused by the virus to be COVID-19.

Around the middle of February, infection rates slowed slightly in the epicenter of the outbreak, but enough pockets of the disease had sprouted up in other countries to keep the world worried. Governments expanded efforts to keep the virus from entering or spreading farther in their countries. Malaysian authorities barred passengers who had traveled on a luxury cruise from entering their country. Singapore followed suit. Israel requested all people returning from Asian countries and territories to self-quarantine. Iran became a new hot spot for the disease, and surrounding countries began shutting down their borders and banning flights to and from Iran. Italy also had a flare-up and placed almost 50,000 people in lockdown. This past Tuesday, North Korea quarantined 380 foreigners and enacted a mandatory 30-day quarantine for all foreigners coming from outside the country. On Tuesday, February 25th, the World Health Organization reported that, for the first time, new cases outside of China exceeded new cases inside of China.

The Current State of Affairs
To date (February 28th) nearly 60 countries have confirmed cases of the virus within their borders. 82,000 people have become sick from the virus and 2,800 have died. The majority of the cases have still been in China, but the demographics of the disease appear to be shifting. Iran (which reported its first case relatively recently) now holds second place for the number of deaths.

Sporting events around the world have been postponed or cancelled. There has even been discussion as to whether the 2020 Olympics due to be held in Tokyo this summer should be canceled, but on Wednesday, Japanese authorities announced that the games would go as planned, albeit with adjustments. Saudi Arabia has closed Islam’s holy sites to all foreigners, disrupting travel for thousands of people already on their pilgrimage to the kingdom, and potentially changing plans for millions more later this year ahead of the fasting month of Ramadan and the annual hajj pilgrimage. Saudi Arabia has never done this before, even during the 1918 flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide.

The world economy is slowing in response to virus fears. Factories are shut down in China, disrupting the flow of manufactured goods around the world. Consumers in China and other places are staying at home and buying fewer goods as a result. Stocks on the U.S. exchange fell on Thursday in the biggest one-day drop since 2011. Asian stock exchanges have been reporting losses for weeks.

Governments around the world are preparing emergency plans should the virus break out in their countries. The U.S. government has asked citizens to be prepared for drastic containment measures (including possible quarantines) should it be deemed necessary. This past week, President Trump sent a proposal to Congress to set aside $2.5 billion to combat a potential virus outbreak. Democratic lawmakers immediately set up a howl, saying that the amount is far too small considering the size of the threat.

Why Such a Large Response?
Why is a little sickness producing this kind of response? It is true that 2,800 people have died from the COVID-19 in the last two months, but when compared to other causes of death worldwide, this is insignificant. For example, in the same time period, approximately 2 million people have died from heart disease and 233,000 have died in roadway accidents. It is true that neither of these are communicable diseases, so let’s consider the common flu. Every year, influenza sickens tens of millions of people worldwide, including up to 5 million that contract serious cases. Of these 5 million, approximately 650,000 people die of the flu, a death rate of ~13%. The coronavirus has sickened 82,000 people so far and killed 2,800, a death rate of ~3.4%.

One of the big factors driving global response is the unknown aspects of the disease. After several months of infection and tens of thousands of cases, doctors now know a lot more about the disease and the average death rate. In the early days, however, the medical field had no clue as to how deadly the coronavirus was or how quickly it could spread. Therefore, every precaution was taken just in case the disease would turn out to be really bad. China especially felt pressured to respond adequately early on. In the 2003 SARS epidemic (which also originated in China), the Chinese government was very slow to recognize the threat of the disease and faced a lot of criticism from health organizations and foreign governments because of it. When China realized that they had a similar disease outbreak, authorities took prompt action.  Health officials had (and still have) hopes of containing and eliminating COVID-19 before it spread far. The SARS coronavirus was successfully contained in spite of the late response and it is hoped the same thing could happen with the new virus.

Another factor I feel contributes to the overwhelming response is the news media. Reporters love a good story and they know full well that the words “new disease” will draw people's attention. For two months now, practically all major news sites have published several articles about the coronavirus every day, and a large percentage of articles not directly about the outbreak contain references about it. As a result, the public has been VERY well informed; perhaps too well. News reports have a way of making the situation feel as dangerous as possible and the public has responded accordingly. As a result of this (probably unjustified) phobia, governments know that they must respond adequately (and then some) to the virus threat so they don’t face backlash from foreign governments, the World Health Organization, and their own people. In this age of political correctness, it is not considered so much whether responses make sense or not. Instead, governments must do what is perceived as right by the public or face a loss of respect and/or power.

What Should Our Response Be?
Paul wrote to Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:7 saying, "God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind." I believe our response as Christians should be one of faith, placing the outcome of a disease outbreak like this completely in the hands of God. The world at large is panicking, and when people panic, they often make bad decisions. We Christians should be calm and confident, recognizing that God is in control of everything that happens.

This does not mean we should be completely passive. Those sickened by the virus or otherwise affected need to be lifted up in prayer. Governments and health organizations need wisdom to know how to deal with the outbreak properly. We should intercede on their behalf. If the outbreak were to become extensive in North America (or wherever you readers may happen to be), we should not isolate ourselves, but instead, be out helping and encouraging those affected. The early church was known for helping the sick and suffering and the church of today should be no different.

It is true that the media has blown up the extent of the outbreak. However, we should not react to this by denying that it is a reality. If you encounter someone who is overly concerned about COVID-19, don't scoff at them or try to set them straight. Instead, point them to the One who is in control of it all.

~Leonard Hege~

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