Our understanding of how coronavirus works through a community is bound to change as more resources are focused on the problem. In the interim, how ever long that might be, the outbreak offers a perfect plot line for one of those Hollywood propaganda pieces dressed as a thriller where the du jour action hero comes to the rescue and, as an aside, uncovers a dastardly right-wing plot. Today’s understanding suggests the disease emanated from snakes and jumped to humans and that we spread it to each other. That victims can be just mildly sick — a kind of man ’flu — for a few days and, that during that progression, they spread the disease adds to the script potential. That it, just like the severe acute respiratory syndrome — SARS — originates in China pushes our plot line towards cliche.
That Chinese authorities, even more enthusiastically secretive than our own, have put the central Chinese city of Wuhan, population 11m, on lockdown over fewer than 20 deaths in an attempt to quarantine the deadly virus stretches credibility too. That the cities of Ezhou and Huanggang have been isolated as well, which means that 20m people are living under restrictions, adds doubt to the assertion that only 20 people have died because of the disease. Wuhan authorities have banned all transport links from the sprawling city, suspending buses, the subway system, ferries and shutting the airport and train stations to outgoing passengers. Supermarkets were emptied and local markets sold out of food as panicing residents hoarded and prepared to stay at home. Petrol stations were overwhelmed as drivers stocked, a move exacerbated by rumours that reserves had run out. Pharmacies had, apparently, sold out of face masks.
There have been 633 confirmed cases and if those restrictions are proportionate, then many more are likely. Officials worry the new year holiday, when hundreds of millions of Chinese are on the move, will exacerbate an outbreak that has reached almost all of the country’s provinces, as well as America, Taiwan, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Macau, and Hong Kong.
Those fears have reached Ireland too as a suspected case provoked concerns at a Dublin A&E. The scare emerged when ambulance staff brought a patient, who had a fever and had returned from China, to the A&E of the Mater Hospital on Tuesday. The patient did not have the virus and therefore was not held in isolation. From an Irish perspective this was a positive outcome but it underlines most forcefully how very vulnerable air travel makes us all to outbreaks of contageious diseases no matter where that outbreak occurs. Dr Jack Lambert, a specialist in infectious diseases at the Mater, said emergency departments were on “heightened alert” and that “it is highly likely there will be cases of the coronavirus in Europe over the next month”.
Should that transpire it will be far too late for any facetious talk about Hollywood plot lines. Our health system, already struggling to cope with the impact of the winter flu bug, will be put under further pressure. That eventuality would also move the debate about making some vaccinations mandatory into a new and far sharper focus.