On March 11, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. It’s not a seasonal flu or influenza. What’s referred to as covid-19 is a coronavirus—the first to reach pandemic levels. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus predicts the situation will worsen. It probably originated in bats but passed to people via an intermediary animal species that started infecting people in Wuhan, China in late November or early December. There is not yet a vaccination, and there is still uncertainty about how it spreads.
Since cases of the coronavirus began to appear outside of China, fear and frustration in the U.S. has grown over the lack of a coordinated response from the U.S. government and the C.D.C to the coronavirus threat. After the first American case was confirmed in the Seattle area in late January, federal and state red tape delayed efforts by Dr. Helen Y. Chu, an infectious disease expert and her Seattle Flu Research team to begin monitoring the coronavirus. By Feb. 25, outbreaks had emerged in countries outside of China, so she began performing coronavirus tests without government approval.
A NYTimes article (3/10/20), “How Delays in Testing Set Back the U.S. Coronavirus Response,” reports missed chances by the federal government to ensure more widespread testing during the early days of the outbreak, when containment would have been easier. Test results confirmed Dr. Chu’s worst fears. The coronavirus had already established itself on American soil without anybody realizing it. “It’s just everywhere already.”
Countries affected by the epidemic are struggling with how to carry on with their daily lives and social activities. Italy, with the highest number of coronavirus cases and deaths in Europe, is under lockdown. In Madrid, Spain where our son and his family live, schools and gyms have been closed and market shelves are increasingly empty as more and more people are staying home. In the U.S., international travel from Europe (except for the United Kingdom and Ireland) has been banned for now and domestic air travel unless essential has been curtailed.
By declaring the coronavirus disease 2019 a global pandemic, the WHO sent a stark message to governments that have been slow to respond to the crisis. “You know who you are,” Director-General Tedros said. WHO’s bold action let world leaders know that they must move rapidly and act aggressively to slow the spread of the virus in order to avoid overwhelming national health systems as in the case of Italy.
Efforts should be made to trace contacts of infected patients, to test widely, and to ensure that laboratories and hospitals are ready. WHO officials stress that countries should implement a strategic combination of containment measures to slow the spread of the virus and mitigation measures to treat infected patients. Individuals should follow guidelines for washing hands, social distancing, and self-quarantining if they might be sick. Coordination among agencies and between federal and state governments is essential.
Social distancing and staying at home are encouraged as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Conferences and cultural festivals have been cancelled, the NBA has suspended the remainder of their playing season, and NCAA March Madness was called off. Schools and universities are suspending in-person classes and disinfecting classrooms. In numerous states, all K-12 schools have closed until further notice. Locally in Columbia, the April Unbound Book Festival has been cancelled, along with a planned book event with Brooklyn based author, Matthew Goodman.
To help in this effort, the WHO has issued a consolidated package of existing preparedness and response guidance for countries to enable them to slow and help stop COVID-19 transmission and save lives. WHO is urging all countries to prepare for the potential arrival of COVID-19 by readying emergency response systems’ capacity to detect and care for patients; by ensuring hospitals have the space, supplies and necessary personnel; and by developing life-saving medical interventions.
From WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, Director-General Tedros warned, ‘This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector—so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight.” Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte echoed WHO’s warning to the world when he addressed the people of Italy. “We are facing an emergency. This is the moment of self-responsibility.”
What governments and individuals do now can make a world of difference in how we all get through the first global pandemic of our lives.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.