Over the last three months, we’ve seen how a virus has the potential to bring our world to its knees. Since it started in central China in late 2019, the coronavirus COVID-19 has forced entire countries into lockdown and thrown travel, large gatherings – and the economy – into chaos and jeopardy.
COVID-19 has been officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on March 11th. A pandemic is declared when a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations, according to the body. As I write, the total number of cases confirmed across the world has reached 127,749, while 4,717 have died and 68,305 have recovered. It is just getting started and COVID-19 cases will increase exponentially worldwide.
According to the WHO, coronaviruses (CoV) are a large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The novel coronavirus (nCoV OR COVID-19) is a new strain that has not been previously identified in humans. Coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they are transmitted between wild animals and people. Detailed investigations found that SARS-CoV was transmitted from civet cats to humans and MERS-CoV from dromedary camels to humans. Several known coronaviruses are circulating in animals that have not yet infected humans.
Scientists searching for the source of COVID-19 are almost sure it originated in bats and maybe passed to another animal in the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, where it’s thought to have started. But the real blame, say experts, lies firmly at our feet. It’s something we can all stand accountable for – human behaviour.
Disease ecologists have long feared that deforestation and trading wildlife in our markets are putting people closer to viruses which previously stayed with their mammal hosts. Wildlife didn’t invite us to meddle – we chose to move into their territory, or bring them to ours, and now we’re paying the price.
Dr. Jonathan Epstein, Vice President for Science and Outreach at EcoHealth Alliance, which aims to protect wildlife and public health from the emergence of disease, says “Even if we conquer COVID-19, another one could strike any time. We’re seeing an increase in viruses jumping from the animal host to people, and it’s almost entirely because of human activity. Every species of animal has its own viruses which will stay with the animal host in the forest until we come in and interfere. We hunt them, handle them and butcher them. In densely-packed conditions, such as at live animal markets, people are exposed to their bodily fluids. It’s a great way for a virus to jump from an animal to a person.”
Once the virus is passed on, pathogens that are exposed to warmer temperatures in the natural world due to climate change are better equipped to survive the high temperature inside the human body. While the body temperature of a human being rests around 37° Celsius (98.6° Fahrenheit), rising a few degrees when we’re ill to protect us, bats’ body temperatures can go up as high as 40.5° Celsius ( 105° Fahrenheit). This means that as global temperatures increase, bats will be protected by their body heat. But the viruses they carry can have a devastating effect on human beings.
“We are driving these epidemics to occur more frequently,” says Dr Epstein, who believes education is the way forward. “It’s tempting to say the solution is to stop hunting wildlife, but we need to try and understand what’s motivating people to use and consume wildlife, make them aware there is a risk involved, and look at alternatives.”
Our fear of the COVID-19 is growing by the day and it is important to control the hysteria and remain calm. For 80 percent of people, the symptoms are mild, but in the elderly and those in already poor health, COVID-19 can cause pneumonia and breathing difficulties and – in severe cases – organ failure.
More than 20 vaccines are in development according to the WHO, but it will take a year or more of testing before a vaccine will be safely available.
Our recovery and survival ultimately depends largely on how strong our immune system is, and the speed countries can respond to isolate or quarantine their citizens, have protection and ventilator equipment available for those in the front line and find a cure. For individuals, standard recommendations to prevent infection spread include regular hand washing, covering mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing, thoroughly cooking meat and eggs. Avoid close contact with anyone showing symptoms of respiratory illness such as coughing and sneezing, or any traveler in self-quarantine for 14 days who have been in high-risk destinations.
Despite locking down towns, cities and entire countries, our mobile population unwittingly spread coronavirus to over a hundred thousand people in more than 100 countries. The epi-centre of the pandemic started in Wuhan, China and will move across the globe and countries will impose a cascade of restrictions in efforts to prevent their health systems from collapsing under the load of cases.
Most governments are urging their citizens to avoid travel to a destination where COVID-19 diagnoses are increasing and for older adults with serious, chronic medical conditions to stay home. If you’re still planning to travel, it’s wise to:
• Check your local government travel advisory.
• Check your travel insurance. Travel insurers tend to exclude or cover known events such as pandemic and epidemic.
• Pack your own small blanket, travel pillow, pack of tissues, a water bottle, antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer, vitamin supplements to optimize your immune system and the right mask (a N95 respirators mask recommended for healthcare professionals).
• Wash or sanitize your hands after touching surfaces in public areas, especially airports, planes, trains and buses.
• Stay connected to support people in your lives who are most vulnerable to anxiety and victims of discrimination. In times of crisis, it is important for people to support each other.
In late February, the International Air Transport Association estimated the potential cost of the outbreak to the industry at $29.3 billion this year. IAG, Air France-KLM, Qantas, Lufthansa and EasyJet have all voiced concern. No one knows what the total damage of COVOD-19 will be to the $5.29 trillion global travel industry.
Right now, the situation seems to be spiraling and no “bottom” is in sight. The tourism sector has to live up to its responsibility as an integral part of a wider society during times of crisis, and its cooperation is vital in stopping the spread of the virus and limiting its impact on people and communities. This response needs to be measured and consistent, proportionate to the public health threat and based on local risk assessment. Travelers are also responsible for their own well-being and for those around them in order to limit the threat of transmission, and they should follow the recommendations of the WHO and their own national health authorities.
COVID-19 is another shocking wake-up call and it is going to be a big test for our world. It is a complex issue, but this world enforced pause may be what we need to find positive solutions and change our behavior to save our environment and ourselves.
To find out more, track COVID-19 worldwide HERE.