WHO declares coronavirus global health emergency

Health screenings take place at Xianning North train station in China. Photo//Martin Pollard/BusinessInsider

On January 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Wuhan coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, a global health emergency. WHO was previously hesitant, claiming it was too early. However, the virus continued to spread into China’s 31 provinces, and when the death toll jumped to 170 and the infected to over 7,700, WHO decided to make the announcement. 

As of February 1, the death toll has passed 300 with over 14,000 infected, with one or more confirmed cases found in Australia, Cambodia, Canada, France, Finland, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States, United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam. According to BBC News, “The US and Australia said they would deny entry to all foreign visitors who had recently been in China, where the virus first emerged in December. Earlier, countries including Russia, Japan, Pakistan and Italy announced similar travel restrictions.”  Many countries around the world have closed their doors to arrivals from China, despite WHO’s warnings that “travel restrictions can cause more harm than good by hindering info-sharing, medical supply chains and harming economies,” and that countries should focus on extensive health screenings instead. American, Delta, and United Airlines are also halting all flights to China. United States citizens and residents arriving from China will be quarantined for 14 days, as other countries also evacuate their citizens out of Hubei province.

The virus has also impacted the stock markets. According to The Wall Street Journal, “Anxiety swept through stock, bond and metals markets as investors reached for traditionally safer assets like Treasurys and gold. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 606 points, or 2.1%.” Chinese Ambassador Chen Xu told reporters in Geneva, “There is no need for unnecessary panic, and no need for excessive measures,” he also cites WHO’s advice against travel restrictions, “We don’t believe it is advisable to take all of these measures, unnecessary or excessive measures to cut off the airline or to shut down the border.” However, countries with confirmed cases have continued to take matters into their own hands.

More has been learned about the virus: The New York Times reports that symptoms show “possibly between 2 and 14 days, allowing the illness to go undetected.” It is also estimated that the virus is roughly as contagious as SARS, the coronavirus that spread in China in 2003 and resulted in over 700 deaths and infected over 8,000 people before it was contained, and has a lower fatality rate. However, as of February 1, this coronavirus has surpassed SARS’ number of confirmed cases.

As paranoia mounts, some Chinese people are experiencing xenophobia. The Guardian reports that in Rome, Italy, a sign outside a coffee shop said “all people from China” were not allowed to enter. In another incident, a professor “telling students from China, Japan and South Korea not to come to class until after a doctor had visited their homes to ensure they have not contracted the virus.” There are several more reported incidents of businesses posting signs telling Chinese people they are not welcome. With this rise in panic and xenophobia, health officials have emphasized the virus’s low fatality rate. Many patients have fully recovered; the virus is only deadly to the elderly or those with weakened immune systems.

Dr. Mikhail Varshavski, a primary care physician at Chatham Family Medicine, has stated that as it is a potential threat, especially in the U.S., and not yet a crisis, the public must be “alert, not anxious.” The best precautions to take are the basic preventive measures, such as washing one’s hands and refraining from touching one’s face.