Irish Examiner View: Scale of coronavirus risk is still unknown

Irish Examiner View: Scale of coronavirus risk is still unknown
Officials in protective suits checking on an elderly man wearing a facemask who collapsed and died on a street near a hospital in Wuhan. Picture: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

The widely-circulated image of a grey-haired man lying dead where he fell on a Wuhan footpath, his face half covered by a protective mask and a plastic shopping bag in one hand, surrounded by medical staff in full protective hazmat suits and masks, may not promote the kind of calm that the escalating coronavirus outbreak demands.

That composure will be challenged too by the news that the number of cases worldwide has already surpassed the Sars epidemic peak.

Sars — severe acute respiratory syndrome — spread to more than two dozen countries in 2003 and there were around 8,100 cases but nearly 10,000 people have, to date, been infected with coronavirus.

The number of deaths stands at 213, all in China. That toll is, for now, far lower than the 774 people killed by Sars.

That two members of a family have tested positive for coronavirus in England will challenge that composure too. Further afield, Thailand recorded its first human-to-human transmission of the disease after a taxi driver was infected by a passenger, heightening concern over the virus’ potential to spread in the worst-hit country outside China.

The driver was among five new patients confirmed yesterday, bringing the number of cases in Thailand to 19. Russia has also confirmed a case.

In the days since the WHO declared a global health emergency American has told its citizens not to travel to China. China has said it will send charter plans to bring back Hubei province residents from overseas “as soon as possible”.

A government spokesman said this was because of the “practical difficulties” Chinese citizens have faced abroad. Hubei is where the virus emerged so this might be, hopefully not, shutting the door after the horse has bolted.

That the escalation is gathering momentum despite the fact that at least 50m Chinese citizens are living in locked-down cities must add to the gravity around the situation — as must the fact that British Airways and other airlines have halted all flights to and from mainland China.

On the home front, the INMO asked the HSE about eventualities should coronavirus reach these shores. Union general secretary Phil Ní Sheaghdha pointed out that intensive care beds are in constant demand and none are available.

That intervention may not inspire confidence but those questions must be asked even if those obliged to answer them — the HSE — are already struggling on a daily basis to match capacity and demand — as most health services do.

The outbreak has unfortunately brought more than physical illness. It has shown how quickly fear, misinformation and blame can replace reason.

There are rumours of hardening attitudes towards Chinese people which signals unacceptable racism.

A year before the last Sars outbreak US politician Donald Rumsfeld gave the world a wonderful phrase: “There are known knowns... But there are also unknown unknowns...”

We are in that position once again but there is no reason to imagine that a calm, informed and well-resourced response will not be equal to the challenge.

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