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Sailing Towards a Global Epidemic

It was the mid-fourteenth centurythe sight of ghost ships carrying corpses contaminated with the bubonic plague spread waves of terror throughout the European continent. To appease the angry gods, who they believed had sent this plague, people resorted to flogging themselves in the hopes of repenting for their sins. As it turned out, the real culprit, that ultimately decimated a third of Europe’s population, was a small bacterium that had hitched a ride on the back of an inconspicuous flea. More than 600 years have passed since, and yet, humans continue to suffer at the hands of zoonotic diseases. The most recent purported culprit—the SARS-CoV-2—has infected more than 86,000 people and caused over 3,000 deaths.

The first reports of a novel coronavirus strain emerged in December 2019, with patients from the populous city of Wuhan in Central China, displaying symptoms of pneumonia. Many of those infected were linked to the Huanan Wholesale Seafood Market, a live animal and seafood market in the city, giving rise to the theory that the virus may have spread through contact with wild animals. While there is no conclusive evidence that the market was the only source of the virus, the reports drew worldwide attention to China’s wild animal trade. The growing public pressure eventually led the Chinese government to place a permanent ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals for food, in effect, sounding the death knell for the $7.1 billion wild-life trade industry and also costing many their only source of livelihood.

The Huanan Seafood Market bears a deserted look after it was shuttered in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. (Image Credits: The Conversation)

Too Close for Comfort?

Besides the COVID-19, the SARS, Ebola, bird flu, and HIV epidemics can also be traced back to wild animals. Several species of fauna are excellent breeding grounds for viruses—oftentimes, relatively milder virulent strains become potent in their dormant hosts before infecting other mammals, particularly humans. It, thus, does not come as a surprise that so many of these viral strains originate and spread in regions of thick ecology. The Ebola outbreak of 2013-2016 was said to have first been contracted by humans through children playing in an area that housed fruit bats in West Africa. Residents contracted the 2018 Nipah Virus outbreak in Kerala through the consumption of fruits and raw date palm sap that had been tainted by fruit bats.

Another underlying cause of outbreaks primarily originating in the Eastern hemisphere is population size. The world population touched a staggering 7.7 billion people in 2019, with over 4.24 billion residing in the Eastern part alone. With large populations comes a decrease in maintenance and monitoring of hygiene, a reduction in the size of living quarters, and as a result, people cut corners while they struggle to make ends meet. Although money and power protect a few, the lack of resources and concern for the well-being of the general population causes the spread of disease—crowded spaces, tightly enclosed individuals with no room for aeration, and the lack of sanitation all add to the increase in the breeding of pathogens, escalating possibly controllable infections.

It is the poor of a country, such as migrant workers, that are at the highest risk during an epidemic. (Image Credits: The New York Times)

The rapid spread of this virus from a lone species of animal in a Central Chinese city to 58 countries across the world is a sobering reminder of how much more vulnerable we are to disease in an increasingly inter-connected world. The global ramifications of the virus span wide—airlines have taken a hit as evidenced by Lufthansa announcing that it expects to reduce flights by 25%. The virus is also wreaking havoc on the global economy as new fears emerged about the spread of the virus in Europe and the Middle East. In a stunning culmination of these fears, the S&P 500 stock index suffered its worst weekly drop last week since the 2008 financial crisis. Many companies across the world warned of disruptions to their supply chains as industries in China and South Korea ground to a halt. Major trade shows, such as Facebook’s annual developer conference in California, the Geneva Motor Show, and the Mobile World Congress have also been cancelled to prevent large gatherings of people. As the virus is poised to affect people across the world in different spheres of life, one of the most critical actions citizens can take is to prevent the spread of misinformation and rumours.

Combating an ‘Infodemic’

In a tragic incident that took place in the Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, the coronavirus became an indirect cause of death. A 50-year-old man suffering from the ordinary flu committed suicide, believing he had to protect his family because he had contracted the virus. Despite being reassured by doctors that his illness had nothing to do with the coronavirus, a diet of online videos and sensationalist reports led him to the conclusion that he had been infected. The spread of misinformation through social media has been a problem that India has had to contend with for the past several years. In times like these, it becomes essential to trust and communicate only vetted information to prevent panic. Already, a number of conspiracy theories have emerged alleging that the coronavirus is a bio-weapon, and even that it is a population control scheme. Experts such as Richard Ebright, a professor of chemical biology at Rutgers University, have been trying to debunk these myths. “Based on the virus genome and properties there is no indication whatsoever that it was an engineered virus,” he said in a conversation with The Washington Post.

Another consequence of the panic surrounding the virus has been racial discrimination against the Chinese and people who look East Asian. There has been a marked increase in anti-Chinese rhetoric in countries like Canada and Australia that have large ethnic Chinese populations. French Asians have even taken to social media to combat the prejudice against them by using the hashtag, JeNeSuisPasUnVirus (I’m not a virus). In this atmosphere of discord, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’s words at a recent conference provide clarity “This is a time for facts, not fear. This is a time for rationality, not rumours. This is a time for solidarity, not stigma.”

The Diamond Princess proved to be an example of a failed quarantine, as the number of passengers infected on the ship skyrocketed from ten to over seven-hundred over a few weeks. (Image Credits: Business Times)

Perhaps the most haunting symbol of this entire crisis is the Diamond Princess cruise-ship that was quarantined off the coast of Yokohama after a passenger tested positive for the virus. The ship that was meant to be an isolation ward for its passengers, quickly turned into something more akin to an incubator, eventually resulting in over 700 positive cases. While many criticised the quarantine measures employed by the Japanese government, a more sympathetic analysis of the situation was given by Matthew Griffith, a senior WHO epidemiologist— “A new virus onboard a ship with 4000 people: there are no guidelines for that.” As the world enters uncharted territories, much like in the case of the Diamond Princess, there will be no way to ascertain which course of action is the best. It is times like these that will test our preparedness and our willingness to put aside panic and mistrust, and come together to face a common adversary.

Featured Image Credits: Al Jazeera