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Infectious Diseases

Updated 19 March 2020

OPINION | Coronavirus: the end of the world as we know it?

A deadly virus that is spreading across the world and changing everybody's lives – and this time it's not a movie screenplay, says Susan Erasmus.

It started off like many previous flu scares: a few deaths in China, people laughing at pics of those wearing masks in public places, and a general feeling that it would be over in a few weeks. Done and dusted.

However, let it not be forgotten that that was what people said about the First World War in 1914. For once, it turns out that the scaremongers were wrong on only one thing: they weren't paranoid enough. We are now facing worldwide lock-downs, travel bans, enforced quarantine, food stockpiling, widespread fear, suspicion, self-isolation, workplace and school shutdowns, and a mounting toll of deaths, especially among the elderly.

Almost five billion hits

At last count at the time of writing there were cases of the virus in 156 countries, and more than 7 900 fatalities have been recorded. Our President addressed the nation. A nation of which approximately 13% is HIV-positive, and TB is rampant. Even load shedding was suspended for the day – I am not sure if there was a connection. I have never seen anything like this. It's the kind of disruption not even a war can cause. Open any news website, and at least 80% of the articles are about the Covid-19 virus – as this year's coronavirus is called. (That's incidentally the name of a group of viruses that cause a variety of diseases in humans and animals – including the annual flu and the common cold). Even the sports articles, the business articles and the entertainment articles.

A Google search under "Covid-19" comes up with almost five billion hits – five times more than a search under "Donald Trump" – and he has had a head start of several years. I am sure he wouldn't like that. It's all people are talking about – those ones still going out. In many countries and regions schools are closed, shops have shut down, music festivals cancelled, sports events canned. Everywhere people are setting up to work from home, if possible.

In sick leave provisions there is no mention of enforced quarantine. This is new territory. Airports are chaotic as people are trying to get home before travel bans kick in, or before the airports themselves stop operating. There are videos on social media of fights in supermarkets in European countries over basic necessities.

Are we just being hysterical, or are we not hysterical enough? Alas, only time will tell. If we're lucky, in ten years' time people will ask: "Do you remember the really weird time of the coronavirus?" If we're unlucky, it will become one of those periods in time where absolutely everybody will be able to remember where they were and what they were doing. At my birthday party on Saturday night, at least half the guests opted for a distant wave or an elbow bump rather than a hug and a kiss. Four guests cancelled – two of them are in high-risk groups. I suspect it was the last big social gathering for a while.

Austria is passing enforceable legislation allowing people to only go out on solitary walks, or just with the people with whom they live, to go to work, to the doctor, or to the supermarket. That's it. The police are on it and the fines for breaking the rules are staggering. Italy's streets are empty. The US is barring flights from a growing list of countries, the UK included. US citizens are returning home in their thousands, while they still can.

Indescribable panic

People have been in isolation and quarantine for weeks in China – and it seems to be working. The good news is that Covid-19 is not nearly as deadly as the SARS virus that did the rounds in 2002 or MERS in 2012. The latter had a death rate of almost 35%, as opposed to Covid-19, which seems to be somewhere between 1 and 3%, depending on which sources you consult. Then there was the Bubonic Plague that killed a third of the people in northern Europe in one dreadful year – 1348. It had a death rate of between 80 and 90%, there was no cure, and people had no idea what caused it.

There were entire villages where not one person survived. Many people who had the plague, were locked into their homes with their families, healthy or not, with predictable results. Plague pits were used to bury heaps of unidentified bodies. Cities were deserted as people tried to flee before the onslaught – often taking the plague with them wherever they went. The panic must have been indescribable. And then there was no social media, no radios, no TV, no newspapers. The first news of the coming disaster was often a stranger stumbling into town who wasn't feeling well at all.

This disease, in many significant ways, changed the history of Europe. And then suddenly it was over. For a while at least. The economic impact of this coronavirus outbreak is just incalculable. No shopping, limited production, little or no travelling (business or pleasure), workplaces shutting down, possibly for ever, markets crashing, profit margins destroyed, health facilities strained to breaking point. Of course, the way we live our lives, cramped together in open offices, trains, buses, factories, planes, classrooms, favours the spread of the virus enormously.

The virus is not out to get us as such – we are merely a convenient part of its life cycle. A handy link in its chain, because we frequently touch the same public surfaces, and then touch our faces. A lot. (Try not to touch your face for half an hour. It's almost impossible.) It puts a new spin on life for a society en masse essentially to be grounded.

We are not there yet, but in a week or two we might be. Home entertainment takes on a new importance. We might rediscover books, board games or each other. Cell phones and laptops and even old-fashioned landlines become a connection to the outside world. People will get bored and frustrated. People will fight. Everyone will get cabin fever. Home delivery services will show profit margins they never dreamed of. In short, as a society we have never been here.

It could be over soon

Pretty soon, there is unlikely to be any country in the world that remains unaffected. Disruption on this global type of scale has never happened before for more than a day or two. This looks set to carry on for weeks, if not months. The world economy could go into a tailspin. We just don't know.

So what do we do? Stay calm. Panic won't help anyone. Wash your hands with soap and water. Follow instructions on social distancing. Stay up to date with the news – not fake news. Boost your immune system so it can fight the virus if you get it. Be on the alert for flu-like symptoms. Help the elderly where necessary. Remember that about 98% of people recover from this infection. And it's likely to be seasonal.

A few weeks or months from now it could all be over. And think of the fact that we show our true colours in time of crisis. We are an inventive and resilient species and we have lived through wars, famines, diseases and natural disasters. And maybe, just maybe in the face of a common onslaught, we will forget our petty squabbles, and become mindful of our common humanity across all borders. Even for just a few weeks, that in itself would be a blessing.

The last word belongs to Helen Keller: "In times of danger large groups rise to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, courage and sacrifice… Mankind will be refashioned and history rewritten when this law is understood and obeyed." 

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