Coronavirus: Western world braces for explosion of infections as deaths rise
As the Western world braces for an explosion in coronavirus infection rates, hospitals in hard-hit areas are already overloaded, while many of the touchpoints of everyday life – shops, cinemas, tourist sites, airports, bars, and museums – are closing until the crisis passes.
Stock markets have already lost 20 percent of their value since February as global financiers assess the likely impact of the crisis on business. But the human cost is hard to predict, as much depends on the measures taken by authorities.
COVID-19, or coronavirus has killed around 4,300 people, and there are 118,000 cases so far, according to official data. The outlook for the human cost is uncertain.
The World Health Organization has said it is “deeply concerned by the alarming levels of spread and severity and by the alarming levels of inaction,” according to Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghereyesus.
How COVID-19 compares
COVID-19 is less deadly but more easily transmissible than SARS or MERS, two recent viral epidemics. Ebola, which afflicted West Africa from 2014 to 2016, was harder to catch than coronvirus, but was highly lethal and claimed 11,300 lives.
The reported infection rate of the new virus of the global population now stands at 0.0015 percent, a figure that is sure to rise. But comparisons to the Black Death, that swept through Asia, Europe, and Africa in the 14th century and killed an estimated 50 million people, are misplaced, according to experts.
In China, the virus broke out in December and has already peaked, thanks to the drastic measures taken by the government. The number of new cases are dropping by the day.
Case count grows in Europe
As the disease spreads across the northern latitudes, infection rates and mortality is rising fast in Europe. Denmark has reported 514 cases, up 10-fold from Monday. The case count continues to climb in Iran, with over 9,000 cases, although unofficial estimates put the infection rates in the Islamic Republic far higher. Deaths in Iran, as of Thursday totaled 429, a rise of 75 in a 24-hour period. Similar spikes have occurred in other countries in Europe and the Middle East.
A new study showed that there are dozens of countries – most Western – with exponential growth rates. The study, “Coronavirus: Why you must act now” by Tomas Pueyo was published on the public forum site Medium.
Government scientists in Europe and North America are currently weighing the economic impacts of shutting down cities against the human toll the virus with no known cure is capable of inflicting.
At a press conference on Wednesday, the WHO’s Ghereyesus said governments had to "strike a fine balance between protecting health, minimizing disruption, and respecting human rights.”
In the UK, a professor of virology at King’s College London, Stuart Neil said the British government has to walk a “very difficult tightrope” in its attempt to limit the grip the virus could take on the country without burdening the public with restrictions, like social distancing measures, too soon.
Neil warned that if countries go on lockdown too soon, residents get bored and will likely not adhere to the stringent measures.
Coronavirus the pandemic takes its toll
The WHO declared the new coronavirus a pandemic on Wednesday. The last viral disease to earn the title was in 2009, for a new strain of H1N1 influenza.
Up to 70 percent of the German population could become infected, according to Chancellor Angela Merkel. The country reported its third death on Wednesday as the number of cases reached 1,296.
Speaking alongside the country’s health minister, Merkel said “This is a test for our solidarity, our common sense and care for each other. And I hope we pass the test.”
Germany’s announcement came as Italy was in its second day of national lockdown. Italy closed all shops except food stores and pharmacies as the virus rips through the country. Rome announced it would shut down its airports on Thursday.
Italy on lockdown
The new lockdown measures are in place until March 25, and the country had previously closed schools, gyms, museums and nightclubs as a precaution. The death toll in Italy is 827, and there are more than 12,000 confirmed cases. In Lombardy, the region hit hardest by the virus and one of the first put on lockdown, the death rate is 6 percent, 4 percentage points higher than the global average.
There are now too many cases for the country’s healthcare system to adequately care for. Hospitals don’t have enough ventilators and there are simply not enough doctors, according to local media.
Guidelines were published outlining criteria doctors and nurses should follow, forcing healthcare professionals to make moral choices about who lives, and who dies. The guidelines liken these modern moral choices to wartime triage.
It’s not first come, first serve; it’s assess who is most likely to survive, based on criteria such as age and overall health, and allocate resources accordingly.
Countries have begun to take stricter measures to protect themselves, such as increasing social distancing mechanisms, canceling school and other events like concerts and sporting events, and halting flights.
The US suspended entry for arrivals from Europe, and US residents and citizens were told flights would only be available for them to return.
Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait have given citizens and residents deadlines for returning home. Some wonder if this is indicative of whole-country shutdowns to come. Kuwait announced that beginning Friday, March 12, all commercial flights to and from the country will be suspended until further notice.
Because of the way the virus spreads, health experts have said social distancing is one of the most important ways to limit, or stop, the virus’s spread.
“The whole point of an infectious disease is that it spreads between humans via contact or via droplets, so limiting major gatherings will assist in containing it,” Dr. Marie-Louise Van Eck, regional medical director for the Middle East and North Africa at International SOS, a medical and travel security services firm told Al Arabiya English.
However, the costs of imposing a total lockdown are not negligible and can be counterproductive, so the timing of government action is absolutely critical, according to experts.
“In this country we have expert modelers looking at what we think will happen with the virus,” said the UK’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries.
“The timing is really important. We need to get the timing, firstly on helping to stop the spread, to continue to contain the virus as much as we can, but then particularly for our elderly people to find exactly the right point to give them the advice.”
“If we put it in too early, we will just pop up with another epidemic peak later on. If we leave it too late, we will have missed the boat… We have very clear advice on when we should intervene,” she said.
Countries now face a fine balancing act of doing everything within their power to contain the virus to protect their populations while continuing business as normal for as long as possible.