China’s massive travel restrictions, house-to-house checks, huge isolation wards and lockdowns of entire cities bought the world valuable time to prepare for the global spread of coronavirus.But with troubling outbreaks now emerging in Italy, South Korea and Iran, and US health officials warning it’s inevitable it will spread more widely in America, the question is: Did the world use that time wisely and is it ready for a potential pandemic?”It’s not so much a question of if this will happen anymore, but rather more a question of exactly when this will happen — and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” Dr Nancy Messonnier of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Some countries are putting price caps on face masks to combat price gouging, while others are using loudspeakers on trucks to keep residents informed.Prime Minister Scott Morrison has described the coronavirus outbreak as a global health crisis, warning the economic impacts would stretch far beyond Australia’s tourism and education sectors.In the United States and many other nations, public health officials are turning to guidelines written for pandemic flu and discussing the possibility of school closures, telecommuting and cancelling events.
‘Time is everything’
Countries could be doing even more: training hundreds of workers to trace the virus’ spread from person to person and planning to commandeer entire hospital wards or even entire hospitals, said Dr Bruce Aylward, the World Health Organisation’s envoy to China, briefing reporters about lessons learned by the recently returned team of international scientists he led.”Time is everything in this disease,” Dr Aylward said. “Days make a difference with a disease like this.”
The US National Institutes of Health’s infectious disease chief, Dr Anthony Fauci, said the world is “teetering very, very close” to a pandemic. He credits China’s response for giving other nations some breathing room.China locked down tens of millions of its citizens and other nations imposed travel restrictions, reducing the number of people who needed health checks or quarantines outside the Asian country.It “gave us time to really brush off our pandemic preparedness plans and get ready for the kinds of things we have to do,” Dr Fauci said. “And we’ve actually been quite successful because the travel-related cases, we’ve been able to identify, to isolate” and to track down those they came in contact with.
With no vaccine or medicine available yet, preparations are focused on what’s called “social distancing” — limiting opportunities for people to gather and spread the virus.That played out in Italy this week. With cases climbing, authorities cut short the popular Venice Carnival and closed down Milan’s La Scala opera house.In Japan, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on companies to allow employees to work from home, while the Tokyo Marathon has been restricted to elite runners and other public events have been canceled.
Is the rest of the world ready?
In Africa, three-quarters of countries have a flu pandemic plan, but most are outdated, according to authors of a modeling study published last week in The Lancet medical journal. The slightly better news is that the African nations most connected to China by air travel — Egypt, Algeria and South Africa — also have the most prepared health systems on the continent.
Elsewhere, Thailand said it would establish special clinics to examine people with flu-like symptoms to detect infections early. Sri Lanka and Laos imposed price ceilings for face masks, while India restricted the export of personal protective equipment.India’s health ministry has been framing step-by-step instructions to deal with sustained transmissions that will be circulated to the 250,000 village councils that are the most basic unit of the country’s sprawling administration.
Vietnam is using music videos on social media to reach the public. In Malaysia, loudspeakers on trucks blare information through the streets.In Europe, portable pods set up at United Kingdom hospitals will be used to assess people suspected of infection while keeping them apart from others.France developed a quick test for the virus and has shared it with poorer nations. German authorities are stressing “sneezing etiquette” and Russia is screening people at airports, railway stations and those riding public transportation.In the US, hospitals and emergency workers for years have practiced for a possible deadly, fast-spreading flu. Those drills helped the first hospitals to treat US patients suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.