It’s important to keep that context in mind when considering the coronavirus. It can be all too easy to panic when hearing about pandemics on the news (or reading about them on the Internet) and summon up memories of the Black Death, Smallpox in the New World, and 1910s Influenza Epidemic.
So, let’s push past the fears and focus on facts – what is coronavirus, and how should you prepare for it?
Coronavirus’ Spread and Mortality Rate
It is important to note at the outset that this is being written in the first few months after the outbreak. As such, the information here is highly subject to change. For up-to-date information, you should check outlets such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) which is spearheading the global response.
At the time of writing in March 2020, coronavirus has infected roughly 109,400 people worldwide with nearly 4,000 mortalities, most of which have been in China, where the virus first emerged in the Wuhan Province in December 2019. For comparison’s sake, Ebola, H1N1, or SARS, each infected tens of millions and killed thousands worldwide. Aside from China, Iran, Italy, and South Korea have been the countries hardest hit, with between 6,500 to 7,300 cases each at the time of this writing, while China has more than 80,000. For context, the next-biggest coronavirus hotspots, Japan and Germany, only have roughly 1,000 to 1,200 reported cases each.
China quarantined Wuhan following the outbreak, and other countries instituted travel bans to China. While the efficacy of this is to be determined, there is some evidence it has helped limit the spread if only albeit slightly. Italy, meanwhile, site of the worst coronavirus outbreak in Europe, has quarantined 16 million citizens across Northern Italy in cities such as Venice and Milan.
As such, while the spread of coronavirus has been sudden and shocking, and there is still time for things to take a dire turn, many steps have been taken to prevent that and contain the outbreak, with some signs of success.
What’s more, the death rate for coronavirus at present is “only” 3.47%. That may still sound scary, but it is worth remembering that, at its worst, Ebola has an average mortality rate of 50%, and that figure was as high as 90% in the past.
According to the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, if the current trajectory holds, coronavirus will be more transmissible but less deadly than SARS, which had a mortality rate of roughly 10%.
Those other viruses and plagues put the (thus far) limited mortality rate of coronavirus into perspective.
One of the reasons coronavirus can seem so terrifying is that it’s early symptoms can manifest similar to the common cold or flu. However, before you start being worried at every cough and sneeze, it’s worth looking at the disease and its symptoms in greater detail.
Coronavirus belongs to a family of coronaviruses, which are in turn related to diseases such as MERS and SARS. The type of coronavirus which is “the” coronavirus is referred to as COVID-19. Among the symptoms registered by patients suffering from COVID-19 include:
- Aches and pains
- Runny nose and nasal congestion
- Sore throat
You have probably noticed that these symptoms are hardly exclusive – on the contrary, they are incredibly common symptoms for a wide range of conditions. That is part of what makes coronavirus difficult to detect at the moment. However, while you should not be dismissive of any of these symptoms, nor should you panic – it is just as likely that a stuffy nose is just a stuffy nose, or indicative of any number of other conditions of which that is a symptom.
In fact, according to the WHO, almost 80% of people infected with coronavirus recover on their own and do not require any additional treatment, just as you would recover from the cold or flu. This is consistent with the idea that coronavirus is more transmissible, but less fatal, than other outbreaks like H1N1. Just as you can be a carrier for the cold or flu and not feel too sick yourself, you could be a carrier of coronavirus, not feel the symptoms too badly, and inadvertently spread it to others.
Roughly one in six coronavirus patients who do become more seriously ill develop conditions such as difficulty breathing, which is a warning sign that the disease is being far more dangerously effective in the individual. If this happens to you or someone you know, or if you or they develop a high fever, severe cough, or have difficulty breathing, you should contact the medical authority in your area and seek treatment immediately.
Those Most at Risk
Those most at risk during the COVID-19 outbreak are the elderly and those with weakened immune symptoms. However, that is nothing particular to COVID-19, as these groups are always at greater risk during outbreaks.
Addressing the Masks and Protection
Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, countless people have taken to purchasing masks and wearing them for fear of catching the disease. However, as the United States Surgeon General indicated in a Tweet, wearing masks to try and protect oneself from coronavirus is not just ineffective, but actively wasteful. You should only wear a mask if you are actually ill with or are looking after someone with COVID-19 or symptoms which may indicate COVID-19.
The reason for this is that these masks do not protect you from catching the disease – rather, they protect others from catching it from you.
There is a worldwide shortage of these masks, and so wearing them despite not needing them is detrimental to the cause and should not be done.
In the event you are wearing a mask due to symptoms, please note that these masks are designed to be used only once before being disposed of.
Instead of masks, the most effective way to protect yourself from the outbreak of the coronavirus is to wash your hand thoroughly. The CDC has recommended a 20-second interval as the appropriate amount of time for washing your hands.
In addition, when sneezing or coughing, you should cover your mouth.
Coronavirus and Travel
One of the biggest stories to emerge from the coronavirus outbreak is the impact it has had on world trade and travel. Markets have suffered for weeks, while the travel industry is facing its worst fall off since 9/11.
Is it safe to travel during the coronavirus outbreak?
There is no straightforward answer to that question, but rather a host of nuances and caveats reflecting the complexity and changing nature of the situation.
Let’s start with the most concrete information, which is that the CDC and similar international health bodies have discouraged travel to the countries hardest hit – China, South Korea, Iran, and Italy. In the case of these four countries, and especially China, the United Kingdom, United States, and other countries have strongly recommended against all nonessential travel.
Even if you don’t catch coronavirus on your trip to these regions, returning from your flight you would almost certainly be held in quarantine or, at the very least, be questioned and tested upon reentering your home country. To avoid such disruptions, it is best not to travel to these regions.
What about traveling in general? Here is where we get into the trickier side of things. While airlines are doing everything they can to make their planes safe, no trip is without risk under the best of circumstances. That cuts both ways. While there is a slim, yet definite, chance of catching coronavirus while flying, there is risk in all things, and with the global spread, planes are hardly the only place where infection is a threat. While flying to areas with high infection rates is increasingly dangerous and inadvisable, it is up to you to determine on a case by case basis whether a flight is worth it.
In fact, it’s not planes, but cruises that have been hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak. Multiple cruise ships have been subjected to infections and mass quarantines, and the CDC has issued a warning against all cruise travel.
You will also want to check the NHS website before booking a flight to the UK. They have posted a list including many (but not all) of the most-affected countries. If you are traveling to the UK from any of these countries, you may need to inquire about medical treatment or what you can or must do upon entering the UK.
We are still in the early stages of the coronavirus situation, and it is best not to panic. Outbreaks such as these are nothing new. They are part of the human condition, and while it is essential to remain cautious and informed, it bears remembering that we have faced far worse, and will survive this as well.
Hygiene is more important in times like now more than ever. The best advice for everyone would be to wash your hands with soap regularly.