Europe's ready to fight coronavirus, but rising hysteria is difficult to beat
In China, some 50 million people living in Hubei Province are now under quarantine due to the outbreak of a new virus.
By the 15th century, dread of the plague meant ships were kept out in the lagoon of Venice and not permitted to dock until 40 days had passed, enough time to satisfy the good citizens of the republic that there was no pestilence aboard.
Those quadraginta dierum intervallum, or forty-day isolation, gave us the term quarantine, a word very much in the news these days. In China, some 50 million people living in Hubei Province are now under quarantine due to the outbreak of a new virus. In isolated pockets outside China, individuals have been placed in medical quarantine after testing positive for the virus that originated in Wuhan, capital of Hubei.
The situation is evolving very rapidly and at the time of writing, the overall death toll had passed 300. Almost 14,400 infections have been confirmed from the new Wuhan coronavirus, and these numbers are certain to rise.
It has now been about 40 days since the virus became a serious health concern in China. Europe is now part of the story with some 19 people carrying the Wuhan coronavirus in quarantine under treatment, observation, and study.
Among the most recent confirmed cases is that of an elderly couple from Wuhan who was traveling in Italy. After landing in Milan on January 23, they visited Verona, Parma, Florence, the scenic Amalfi coast and Rome before becoming ill. They are now in a Rome hospital where doctors say they are in 'fair' condition.
Italy, a favourite destination for Chinese holidaymakers, has now declared a six-month state of emergency related to the virus, and joined other nations in banning all flights to and from China as well as repatriating its nationals from Wuhan.
Roberto Burioni, an Italian physician and Professor of Microbiology and Virology at the Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, says "The current situation requires countries around the world, including ours, to be prepared to do anything to control the possible spread of the coronavirus."
"Unfortunately, reliable data does not come from China," says Burioni. The current numbers from China show a mortality rate of two to three per cent, which he says would be very high.
Epidemiologists across the globe are saying they suspect the number of infections in Wuhan are much higher than reported - by many multiples - as it possibly spread unchecked throughout December. If so, the mortality rate would be a great deal lower, more in line with the seasonal flu.
The experts also note the dearth of information doesn't mean the Chinese are now willfully underreporting cases. Rather, Wuhan faces the challenges of overwhelmed hospitals and treating severe cases, so authorities are not focused on data collection. "I think right now things are so chaotic in China it may be hard to collect data on the whole spectrum of illness," said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
With some of the top medical systems and teams in the world, Europe now has coronavirus patients of its own to study. The couple now hospitalised in Rome travelled freely in Italy for a week including on a tour bus with others from China.
Italy's centre for infectious diseases issued a statement saying that 12 of those on the tour bus from different areas of China were hospitalised. They were isolated in hospital and nine later discharged after testing negative for the virus. Another 20 who had close contact with the couple are now under observation.
With so much yet to discover about the new virus, another outbreak to watch is hysteria. There are reports of face masks selling out in European locales and Chinatowns in many cities are deserted including Milan's Chinatown at Via Paolo Sarpi. "In Milan's Chinatown, the restaurant business is suffering a 50-70 per cent drop," says Francesco Wu, a successful restaurateur and founder of Unione Imprenditori Italia Cina, an association of second-generation Sino-Italian entrepreneurs.
After some panicked reactions in Rome, the city's Mayor Virginia Raggi tweeted requesting people to "stop psychosis and alarms - we only listen to indications and opinions from the health authorities."
In Paris, the Chinese community is pushing back against what it says are racist comments and newspaper headlines. Lu Chengwang joined in on Twitter to say "I'm Chinese, but I'm not a virus! I know everyone's scared but no prejudice please."
Other Asians have spoken out to say they are not even Chinese but have also been caught up in the panic.
One sure result of the Wuhan outbreak will be economic. Europe has extensive manufacturing and tourism ties to China. With flights in and out suspended, that activity will be severely slowed. The global cost from the SARS virus in 2003 was estimated at $33 billion, with most economists saying the current outbreak will have a bigger impact because China has a larger share of the world economy.
Different from Medieval times, the latest potential pestilence does not appear to have gained a foothold in Europe. As wary and well-prepared Europe watches, the epic effort remains at the epicentre in Wuhan.
Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com
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