Sadly, we are not strangers to widespread infectious diseases
Earlier this morning, I spent a few minutes doing a coronavirus check. This involved taking a deep breath, holding it for 10 seconds, exhaling, then repeating a couple of times to see if I could complete the exercise without coughing or experiencing any discomfort.
Fortunately, I passed.
According to numerous messages sent via different social media platforms, this test is said to prove that there is no fibrosis of the lungs and therefore no infection. In other words, no coronavirus.
Given that the disease affects the respiratory system, and the alarming speed at which the virus is spreading across the globe, it seemed like the prudent thing to do.
Without, of course, losing sight of the fact that this simple check may not have any basis in science or factual evidence.
The first time I heard of this disease was over 10 years ago when my cat was diagnosed with, and died from, Feline Infectious Peritonitis caused by a virus called coronavirus which attacks their intestine.
It was therefore unnerving to hear earlier this year that there was an outbreak of coronavirus infecting and causing fatalities in people.
Coronavirus disease, or COVID-19 as it has been dubbed, is a hitherto unknown strain of the coronavirus family and much like other coronaviruses, is found in animals.
According to the World Health Organization, COVID-19 is caused by the virus SARS-Co-2 and the most likely carriers are bats. The first case of COVID-19 was reported in Wuhan, China in January 2020.
Since then, the number of people infected has been reported to be as high as 80,000 and rising with almost 50 countries confirming cases of the virus. It has now spread to parts of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, Australia, the US, and more recently, Africa.
Though the WHO states that we have not yet reached the stage of a pandemic, others beg to differ with the opinion that a pandemic is more about the global reach of a disease rather than the severity.
The explanation by the director general for calling the current situation a “global health emergency” and not a “pandemic” is partly to avert global panic.
He states that the word “has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralyzing systems.”
However, he was also keen to point out that if it reached pandemic status, they would not hesitate to label it as such, nor were they downplaying the seriousness of the situation.
We have already seen backlash against people who are perceived to be from China with an increase in racial abuse and harassment. The stock markets are also reacting to the epidemic with falling share prices.
The last thing we need is mass hysteria.
Numerous governments have taken preventative measures such as imposing travel bans to try to limit the spread of the disease and contain the number of people infected as well as up to 14 days of forced or self-imposed quarantine for people who have travelled to or from areas with known cases of infection.
Up until recently, China had the highest rate of new cases of infection. However, the WHO has stated that, for the first time since the outbreak, there are more new cases being reported outside China than inside.
The strict local quarantine policies adopted by Beijing appear to have slowed the transmission of the disease.
Images in the media of places resembling ghost towns with streets devoid of cars or people, barely any customers in restaurants, shops closed and shuttered, people walking around with face-masks, could all be stills from a post-apocalyptic movie.
The very name “COVID-19” sounds like something straight out of a Hollywood medical action thriller. In fact, there is an eerie similarity between our current situation and Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 movie, Contagion.
A deadly and highly virulent disease identified as MEV-1, a mix of genetic material from both pig and bat viruses, originates in China, and within a short span of time turns into a pandemic causing almost 30 million deaths globally.
In the film, a bat drops a piece of banana in a pig pen which the pig eats, the pig is later slaughtered and prepared by a chef, who in turn shakes hands with the character Beth, transferring the virus to her and making her patient zero.
The initial transmission of COVID-19 is thought to have occurred in a seafood market in the centre of the Chinese city, Huanan, where live animals were slaughtered and sold for consumption. The first people to be infected were those who worked or shopped at the market.
Sadly, we are not strangers to widespread infectious diseases.
The SARS outbreak in 2003 and the flu pandemic in 2009 are just a couple of recent examples. Both, incidentally, were also inspirations for Soderbergh’s Contagion.
Though unlike the film, the number of people infected by COVID-19 so far and the fatalities (currently thought to be nearing 2,700) are not in the millions. We talk about life imitating art, but right now the concept feels like less of a good thing.
Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.