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Living in a ghost town – but no reason to panic

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JORDAN MOSHE

Wolov shares this reality with 11 million fellow residents of the capital of China’s Hubei province. For more than a week, they have all been quarantined following the outbreak of what is commonly referred to as coronavirus. The Chinese are striving to contain it, and it has caused considerable panic worldwide.

Wolov is originally from Johannesburg. He moved to China five years ago to teach English and travel around Asia, getting married and having children along the way.

As per government instruction, he and his family remain indoors, venturing out only for essential supplies instead of travelling to celebrate the Chinese New Year as planned.

“We are allowed to go out for food and other resources we may deem necessary, but we have to take necessary precautions to prevent infection and transmission of the disease,” he told the SA Jewish Report on Wednesday. “We have to wear safety masks and gloves which have now been made a legal requirement. If we don’t, we risk being arrested and fined, a necessary evil to prevent the spread of infection.”

The virus came to the attention of the Chinese in December last year after a cluster of pneumonia cases presented themselves. It was only in January that it was identified as a coronavirus capable of infecting humans.

“We refer to the virus as a corona because it looks like a coronet worn by royals under a microscope,” says Barry Schoub, emeritus professor in virology at the University of the Witwatersrand and former director of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). “The virus itself is ubiquitous biologically, primarily among animals, but has been relatively trivial – it can cause the common cold.”

Corona remained a low-key virus group until 2003, when the first instance of an animal-originating virus crossed the species barrier to affect human beings. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (or SARS virus) circulated from February that year across 24 countries, primarily in Asia. Traced to wildlife markets in Eastern Asia, about 8 098 cases of SARS were confirmed, and 9.6% of them resulted in death.

After the virus seemingly died out (with no cases reported from 2004), corona appeared again in 2012, this time in Saudi Arabia and believed to have originated in camels. The Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) was strikingly similar to SARS, and while a more severe virus (causing about 2 500 cases and about 833 deaths across the Middle East, North America, and Europe) it, too, passed into obscurity.

“The general rule is that once an animal virus is found circulating among humans, it doesn’t really last long because it doesn’t circulate very well,” says Schoub. “It’s not adapted to human carriers, so it passes away, which is probably what happened to SARS and MERS.”

The current coronavirus is similarly believed to have originated from animals, potentially snakes sold at a live market in Wuhan. According to Schoub, about 4 577 cases have been identified so far and about 130 deaths reported, 2.3% lower than the rate for SARS and MERS.

Beyond China, cases have been reported in Hong Kong, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, France, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, Singapore, South Korea, Macao, and Nepal. There have also been five confirmed cases in the United States.

“All deaths have been in China so far,” he says. “The majority of cases outside China are secondary cases among travellers. They display fairly mild symptoms, and have reported no deaths thus far.”

In spite of the spread of the disease, public-health organisations have issued different recommendations for travellers. “The World Health Organization (WHO) has not yet called it an emergency of international concern,” says Schoub. “It probably won’t, but that depends on the spread. It’s still too early to know, and from a virologic point of view, its sustainably and ability for further establishment is unknown.” He says South Africa, too, has issued no warnings, but America’s Centre for Disease Control has issued a level-three warning to avoid all non-essential travel to China.

Wolov said all public transport had been suspended, as had all flights in and out of Wuhan. Some American and French citizens had been evacuated (with plans to evacuate British citizens also in place), and the South African consulate had issued a statement saying that South Africans wishing to evacuate must do so on their own account.

Schoub says that while the authorities can’t rule out the virus hitting our country, both SARS and MERS cases in South Africa were few (with two mild SARS cases and no cases of MERS). He stresses that we are equipped to handle the virus if it should arrive.

“Heat screening at our airports would detect the virus,” he says. “A high temperature is one of the symptoms. The problem is that people can transmit the disease before the symptoms show, but there are no reported cases here at present, and our track record suggests it shouldn’t be an issue.”

Although a vaccine is already being researched, no specific treatment exists for the virus, with those who exhibit more severe symptoms being given typical supportive treatment in hospital such as oxygen. Schoub says that people can recover on their own in mild cases with supportive treatment, pointing out that only a medically compromised minority is at immediate risk.

Wolov said the Chinese government was doing its best to contain the situation, issuing reports of people being cured and setting up a temporary, 1 000-bed hospital to isolate and treat those infected. He and his family also remain in constant contact with local and international friends, using a Facebook group of Wolov’s creation (among other platforms) to keep others well-informed.

Both he and Schoub maintain that though the situation is serious, people are making it out to be worse than it actually is.

“The Chinese government is doing its best to deal with the situation. It took action a bit too late, and that’s why we are in this position. We have adequate food and supplies, there are very few people around me that have been infected, and so far, most of the expats here are OK. There are people that have been cured, and the mass quarantine is for everyone’s good,” Wolov said.

“It’s a serious infection,” Schoub says. “It’s an animal virus entering the human milieu, something which comes with a lot of uncertainty. Still, it’s not a cause for panic. If one takes necessary precautions, exercises common sense, and remains vigilant, it won’t be a problem.”

Although one should avoid Wuhan and Hubei, he says there isn’t yet any need to avoid travelling to China altogether or to refrain from visiting Chinese areas in South Africa.

“Use common sense,” he concludes. “The NICD is constantly surveying the situation, and screening continues to take place. It’s really a case of wait and see.”

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