We have to make sacrifices to halt coronavirus spread

We have to make sacrifices to halt coronavirus spread

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People wear masks as they walk in Chinatown district of London, Britain. (Reuters)

The next few months will challenge humanity as a whole. The coronavirus, as it approaches pandemic status, has the potential to close down normal life for weeks or even months. How societies react collectively will be informative as to just how they react in an emergency. How resilient are we? Have we become too soft? 

As the virus moves westward out of Asia, Europe is now bracing itself for a torrid few months. Northern Italy is a major center of infection and more countries are getting cases every day. Ireland, Scotland and the Czech Republic have just had their first cases. Soon, it will no longer be an EU of open borders and the free movement of people. Austria has closed its border with Italy, and we can expect others to close soon as part of a bevy of restrictions on normal life. 

Any activity involving large numbers of people gathering in proximity may become liable to cancelation. In Italy, major sporting events have been postponed and football matches played behind closed doors. Switzerland has banned any gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Venice had to stop its carnival early. The Louvre in Paris closed on Sunday after staff refused to work due to coronavirus fears. 

Expect more of this. Unless there is significant progress in stemming the disease, it is unlikely this summer’s Olympics or European football championships will be viable. Concerts will disappear off the calendar. Schools and universities are shutting up shop, with pupils being taught online. Governments will be forced to make tough decisions about closing off cities, deploying soldiers and even restricting public transport. Every government will be compared to others as to which reacted best, which over-reacted, and which acted too late. 

European economies will come under the cosh. Global markets lost $6 trillion in one week — the largest fall since the 2008 financial crisis. A global recession is now more than likely. Consumers will have to be prepared for significant shortages, as supply chains from affected countries such as China and South Korea are hit hard, meaning fewer fancy smartphones and a potential shortage of sweeteners for fizzy drinks. Are we too spoilt to handle this?

We will have to become anti-social, restricting seeing friends and even family. The technical term for this is “social distancing.” How will we react to avoiding public events, handshaking, and transport? For the time being, taking holidays abroad may be too much of a risk? Airlines are taking a huge hit. Bookings for cruises have been hit hard, not least after the Diamond Princess saga. People will have to adapt and change their working habits. How successful will they be at working from home and connecting in a virtual world?

People will also have to act responsibly if we wish to slow the spread of the virus, but at the same time not panic or act irrationally. Breaking quarantine is one such example. Panic buying may also be counterproductive. At the other end of the scale, some are too blase and dismissive. 

This also includes not committing coronavirus hate crimes. Many expat Chinese communities have reported physical and verbal attacks. Typically these attacks are spreading to anyone who looks Asian. Chinatowns in major cities such as London and New York have reported a sharp drop in visitors. Some of these are not just motivated by raw fear of a virus, but also latent racist antipathy toward Chinese and Asians. Likewise, far-right groups must not be allowed to use the virus to spread hate. The danger is that they will campaign for certain borders to remain closed permanently, rather than as an emergency one-off. 

Conspiracy theories are spreading even faster than the virus. It is not a global conspiracy, a disease manufactured in some laboratory (it almost certainly originated in wildlife) or, as one muck spreader put it, somehow connected to 5G networks. And, clearly, it is not a sensible idea to drink bleach to kill the virus. In Japan, the panic-buying of toilet paper was triggered when a false rumor spread that the paper used the same materials as face masks. The mainstream media will also have to resist the temptation to overdramatize as the casualty numbers rise.

Developing better hygiene standards is a personal responsibility. A 2015 Gallup poll on European hygiene habits found that, in the Netherlands, only half the population regularly washed their hands after visiting the bathroom. The figure was just 57 percent in Italy. Hand hygiene is vital to slow the spread. One can only admire how Bosnia and Herzegovina achieved an impressive 96 percent.

States have responsibilities too. Some have already failed this test. They must be transparent in their dealings both with their publics and other states. The temptation to downplay the numbers of those infected or the fatalities must be resisted. It was clear the Chinese authorities were far from honest on this, just as was the case with the 2002-03 SARS outbreak. The Iranian authorities were no better. International cooperation is essential to halt the spread, but you cannot do this without trust.

Consumers will have to be prepared for significant shortages, as supply chains from affected countries such as China and South Korea are hit hard.

Chris Doyle

Richer states will have to assist those with poorer public health care systems. The first cases in Africa have now been reported. Many countries do not have the capabilities to impose quarantines, lockdowns or good hygiene practices. Imagine being in a crowded refugee camp with insanitary conditions — in such places, the virus could spread at lightning speed. Some 70 million people globally are displaced, about a quarter of whom live in managed refugee camps. 

This year it is COVID-19. But what comes next? Given the nature of our globalized, interconnected world, this is surely a sign of things to come. Next time it may be a virus with a far higher fatality rate. To handle this, many will hope and pray epidemiologists and medical gurus will develop solutions, vaccines and cures, but remember, as yet, nobody has a cure even for the common cold. Previous experiences demonstrate we are hugely in their debt, as they put themselves at risk on the front line. Time will tell whether governments and the rest of society are prepared to make the sort of sacrifices necessary to repay their courage. 

  • Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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