Battling epidemic of ignorance


  • Letters
  • Thursday, 06 Feb 2020

THE decade has not started well for us. The world is now in the grip of a disease caused by an entirely new pathogen, the virus dubbed 2019 novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV, which first infected a human in Wuhan, China in December 2019.

The China government reacted by imposing a quarantine on Wuhan, a city with 11 million people. But by the end of January, the virus, which causes pneumonia, had exploded into a global outbreak, hitting more than 20 countries and number is still increasing.

After WHO (World Health Organisation) declared the outbreak a PHEIC (Public Health Emergency of International Concern), many countries imposed flight bans and border restrictions to Chinese nationals and/or anybody who had travelled to any part of China within 14 days. Italy even declared a state of emergency for up to six months.

It is the prerogative of each country to impose such restrictions and their citizens must comply. However, WHO does not recommend border restrictions. In fact, studies show that these restrictions do not work and might even have detrimental effects.

It might seem logical to many of us that border restrictions will contain the disease while, for governments, it is perhaps the only tangible step they can take to show that they are actually doing something.

These decisions, however, are driven by fear and self-preservation. It is the fear of a new disease of which we have limited data and understanding.

Unfortunately, a public health issue of this magnitude is not only about the health aspect, it also involves politics, economics and social factors.

Political ties can be repaired and economic landscapes can recover, but we often forget about the social impact of disease outbreaks and effects of border restriction policies.

For the past month, we have been reading reports about xenophobic treatment towards the Asian community, where Chinese nationals or even individuals of Asian descent are being harassed in Western countries.

Even within Asia, there are reports of restaurants refusing Chinese patrons and home owners not allowing Chinese tenants to enter their homes.

Similarly, at the epicentre of the outbreak, we hear heartbreaking stories of a disabled boy being abandoned because his caregiver was quarantined, a mother who begged authorities guarding the borders to take her daughter so that the little girl could continue her cancer treatment, or rumours of people abandoning their pets in fear of them harbouring the virus.

These are real stories of real people and whether we want to admit it or not, all of us are living in the same world. It makes sense to help and not ostracise each other.

Governments are calling for calm and understanding in their efforts to pacify the situation that, ironically, is the result of their actions and policies in the first place.

Governments cannot expect their citizens to not have a negative reaction because it is a cascade effect, and the public too are driven by the same fear and sense of self-preservation. Only time will tell if these policies will work and if there are any lasting social impact on the community.

However, policies driven by fear and self-preservation can only get us so far. In this fast developing global crisis, what we need is not unilateral policies or actions that will further divide us. This will not be the last global pandemic we will encounter, especially in this highly connected world we live in.

There will be a time later for a post-mortem on how governments handled the outbreak. What we need now, as declared by WHO in the spirit of PHEIC, is for global communities to work together, especially countries with weaker health systems, and put together our resources and expertise to contain this outbreak.

Equally important, as citizens of the world, we need to show solidarity and support for those who are doing the good work of trying to contain the outbreak and those who are affected by it. It could easily be you, me or someone we know in that situation. In the end, we must remember that in our pursuit to save human lives, we must not lose our humanity as well.

DR KHOO YOONG KHEAN

Singapore

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