International Asia This Week Wuhan virus exposes how vulnerable the world is to panic and pandemic

Wuhan virus exposes how vulnerable the world is to panic and pandemic

A rising fear is enveloping most Asian cities as globalisation also means easier transmission of diseases

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I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown was given to him, and he went out conquering and to conquer. –Revelations 6-2

Each time there is an outbreak of some strange and deadly pestilence, I am reminded of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, predicted in the Book of Revelations.
Of the four horsemen, the white horse represents death and destruction through pestilence and the carnage caused by disease in the world.

The latest, known as the Wuhan virus because it seems to have radiated out from that city in China, has announced that deaths have spiked to 80 while 2,700 cases have been confirmed, at the time of writing.
Nations in Europe, South East Asia, including Malaysia and Singapore have reported cases of the virus among Chinese nationals who arrived from that city.

There was a marked increase in the number of people wearing masks as I travelled in an MRT from City Hall along the Red Line route. At one point, a male passenger, who was sitting next to me, without a mask and having snooze, to my horror, slumped towards me!
I was petrified and as soon as I got home checked my temperature. It was normal. And, I have been checking my temperature every half-an-hour or so as I wait for the clinics to open after the CNY holidays are over.

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No, I am not a hypochondriac. But when it comes to the flu, I am reminded of the SARS and MERS epidemics that hit both Malaysia Singapore. But this episode on the train is a reminder that the world is moving very fast and that air travel is both a boon and bane.
You get there faster and get back in double-quick time compared to our predecessors who took long voyages via ships, camel caravans, horses and by foot.
Any disease-carrying individual or tribe had limited time and space to expose others and if it was highly contagious and deadly, the tribe would have been wiped out as it roamed about and foraged for sustenance.

But today, modern air travel has removed the barriers of time and space that protect us from the onslaught of a deadly pestilence. At the time of writing, there have been four reported cases in Singapore and four in Malaysia with no deaths.
There are 14 countries that have detected individuals that have contracted the virus, with  80 deaths so far, all in China.

But these statistics brings into focus how desperately ill-equipped we seem to be in containing an influenza virus. We can only react after the fact, in fact after the disease has taken its initial toll and has been reported officially. How good are the systems in place in terms of prevention, detection and response and exactly how effective is the health system’s commitment to improving vulnerability to biological threats?

Rapid response and biosafety help mitigate the spread of the epidemic, according to a report by the Global Health Security Index. A new report from a group of international health experts says “Singapore has demonstrated strong leadership and a highly developed capacity to detect and respond to potential public health emergencies”

It is a compilation of the findings of what is known as a “Joint External Evaluation (JEE) of the country’s implementation of the International Health Regulations (IHR (2005)).
“IHR (2005) is a legally binding instrument requiring countries to build a minimum set of core capacities to be better able to protect their citizens, and the citizens of other countries, during outbreaks and health emergencies,” the report adds.

But as average human beings, we tend to panic when there are sporadic outbreaks such as the current Wuhan Virus, also known scientifically as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV). According to CNA, the Ministry of Health (MoH), “the risk of infection from transient contact, such as from public transport or public spaces, is “assessed to be low”.

Whether it has been assessed low or not, I am not taking any chances. I will have a mask on and wash my hands as frequently as I can each time I leave home. Perhaps the mask will veil and allay my fears, but I doubt it. Pandemics become accentuated when there is mass panic. There are enough Hollywood movies that can testify to this. And, I am giving the movies miss for a while.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG

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