Poor access to hygiene information, mass panic and inadequate preparation by health authorities might turn out to be the most dangerous aspects of the global coronavirus outbreak which has infected 89,700 people in 65 countries as of Monday.
China, the epicentre of the disease, has the bulk of cases (80,025) but the virus is now spreading fast in the rest of the world. So far, 3,065 people have died, 2,912 of them in China.
Countries have concentrated effort in limiting infection, including imposing lockdowns on whole cities and regions — the Chinese have quarantined 700 million people — but not as much time and resources testing for the virus, training the public and healthcare givers to manage what is essentially a flu, albeit a fatal one in a limited number of cases.
The US, which has banned travellers who have been to China for a certain period, discovered last week that the virus has been spreading undetected in Washington State for more than two weeks.
It now has 88 confirmed cases and two deaths both in a Seattle neighbourhood. More rigorous testing is certain to reveal more cases.
Kenya, for the most part, has chosen the sooth-saying path, assuring the public that the country is “clean” of the virus, even though passengers are arriving by the hundreds from China, where the disease originated in Wuhan, a city of 11 million which is devastated by the disease and has been under lockdown for weeks now.
The disease in some cases shows no symptoms for long periods and would not, therefore, show up in temperature tests being used to declare passengers healthy.
Three key important facts about the epidemic may not be getting sufficient airtime as media and political authorities concentrate on reporting infections: COVID-19, the formal name for the disease caused by the coronavirus, is not a death sentence.
It’s not even Ebola which kills about half of those infected. From Chinese and other data, 80 per cent of those infected with the coronavirus develop mild flu-like symptoms and do not necessarily require hospital treatment.
Some 14 per cent have severe symptoms — fever, dry cough and shortness of breath — and only 5 per cent become critically ill, mainly those older than 60 or patients with pre-existing conditions, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The key to preventing infection is hygiene: The virus is transmitted through droplets of mucous or saliva from an infected person.
These droplets cause infection if they find their way into the nose, mouth or eyes. Therefore washing hands with soap and running water (or alcohol-based sanitiser gels), not touching the face, avoiding shaking hands, avoiding close contact with patients are all effective ways of remaining healthy.