OPINION

Epicentre shifts

Global efforts to counter the virus have been uneven, with Europe and the U.S. faltering

With 1,08,394 cases reported from outside mainland China as on March 17, there are more people infected with the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in other parts of the world than in mainland China (81,058). Also, as on March 17, the number of deaths (4,279) in the rest of the world is more than in mainland China (3,226). On Monday, there was just one new laboratory-confirmed case and 12 deaths reported in Wuhan; outside Wuhan, no new case has been reported from Hubei province for 12 consecutive days. Even as Iran recorded 16,169 cases and 988 deaths so far, it is in Europe that the virus seems to be galloping. Besides four countries reporting a very high number of cases, all other European countries have recorded at least one case so far, thus shifting the pandemic’s epicentre from China to Europe. Here, Italy and Spain have been the most affected, with 27,980 and 11,309 cases, respectively. On March 16, with 3,590 new cases, Italy reported the biggest jump in case load in a single day while deaths in Spain nearly doubled to 288. Germany (8,084) and France (6,664) have been the other two countries badly affected too. With 2,158 deaths, Italy has reported the highest mortality from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outside China.

There are big lessons that India and the rest of the world can learn from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea on containing the spread. Taiwan began airport screening even before China reported its first case of human-to-human transmission on January 20. Together with closing its borders by January-end, it raised awareness about the virus and the disease, and ways to minimise risk through handwashing and the use of face masks. Taiwan essentially cut the transmission chain even before the virus could gain a foothold in the country. Following the World Health Organization’s guidelines to a tee, Singapore went after all suspect cases by testing all influenza-like and pneumonia cases and aggressively tracing contacts. Like Taiwan and Hong Kong, Singapore too instituted travel restrictions by early February. Not only did it make testing and treatment free for all its residents, it paid $100 a day to self-employed people to ensure none violated quarantine. Besides closing most of the border crossings with China and contact tracing, Hong Kong had a 14-day quarantine in place from February 5 onwards and containment measures — shutting down schools and asking people to work from home — in place by the end of January. South Korea’s massive community-level screening, contact tracing and quarantining after the outbreaks in two churches helped in containment. Contrast this with how the U.S. floundered for weeks on several fronts, including the use of flawed testing kits. A lesson from the pandemic is how containing an outbreak is dependent on quick public-health responses.

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