According to the World Health Organization, a pandemic is the worldwide spread of a new disease. The last pandemic was the Swine Flu in 2009. The swine flu was the first flu pandemic in half a century, and spread to every continent in a matter of weeks. The swine flu was predicted to wipe out millions of people, but only claimed around 123,000 to 200,000 lives. Ten years later, the world may be facing another deadly pandemic, COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus. In December of 2019, the first reported case of the coronavirus struck Wuhan, China. As of March 2nd, the coronavirus has infected more than 88,000 people in more than 60 countries around the world, according to the New York Times. In the United States, it is estimated that there are 62 cases of the coronavirus, one of which is a student at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
In order to understand the coronavirus we must trace it to its origin to Wuhan, China. It is believed that the virus originated in a “wet market” where meats and live animals were sold. Markets such as the one in Wuhan pose an extremely high risk of viruses being transferred from animals to humans due to low hygiene standards. It is common for live animals to be butchered on the spot for customers to purchase. According to Ian Jones, a professor in virology at the University of Reading in England, bats were the original host of COVID-19. Although bats were not sold in the Wuhan wet market, traces of the virus may have been left in their feces and transmitted to the live animals that are sold within the market.
Little is known about how the virus spreads, but according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it is not an airborne disease, instead it transfers through human contact and respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing. Even shaking hands or touching a surface that has been previously touched by an infected person can transmit the virus to a new host. Symptoms of novel coronavirus include fever, cough and shortness of breath, and, in severe cases, pneumonia.
Although China has been taking many measures to stop the spread of the COVID-19, the disease does not seem to be slowing down, as more countries such as Iran, South Korea, and Italy are reporting hundreds of new cases daily. In a press conference on February 29th, the Trump administration urged Americans to avoid travel to those regions. Vice President Mike Pence also announced that the U.S. has raised their travel warning to level 4, the highest level possible. However, it appears that the spread of coronavirus is inevitable and will one day hit the United States as well. Nancy Messonnier, a top official of the CDC, told reporters that “Ultimately, we expect [that] we will see community spread in the United States. It’s not a question of if this will happen but when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illnesses.”
The infected UMass Boston Student was the eighth case reported in the United States. The student is in his 20s and was returning from Wuhan, where he was infected. Fortunately, he sought out medical attention immediately after his return to Massachusetts, so the risk to the public remains extremely low. Since his return from Wuhan, he has been quarantined and will continue to remain quarantined until he is cleared by public health officials. Although this student is the only confirmed case of coronavirus in Boston, the state is holding 680 people in quarantine to monitor their symptoms.
However, the major concern for Bostonians is not about getting infected by the virus. Instead, right now the major concern lies in a side-effect of the coronavirus: a halt of production/manufacturing in China. In an interview done with NBC Boston, Peter Skiera, the Vice President of Production Development of Como Audio, an electronics store in Boston said that he “relies 100% on China for the production” of the company’s speakers. Since China has stopped product development and shipping his company is in “quite a pinch.” The constraints have been plaguing companies around the globe, which culminated when the U.S. stock market plunged. By midday of February 20th, the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 dropped 11.5% the week of February 24 alone, its worst week since 2008. In addition, Boston’s Chinatown has seen steep-drop offs in their businesses due to fear of the coronavirus, despite the fact that the Boston Public Health Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has declared the risk of the virus to the public is very low. According to Bob Luz, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, Chinatown restaurants have lost anywhere from 30% - 80% of their business. In an effort to help save Chinatown, politicians and community leaders held a meeting in Chinatown in early February, to show Bostonians that they should not avoid one of the largest Chinatowns in the United States. “We are coming together to show support for Chinatown and the small businesses there, particularly the restaurants, which are a hub of the entire community,” said Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu. “It’s a community that’s been hit really hard in the midst of coronavirus anxiety, and some misinformation and unfounded fear about the epidemic led to a surge in discrimination and stereotypes.” Devra First of the Boston Globe said it best when she said “There’s no reason to stay away, and there are so many reasons to be [in Chinatown.]”
Although the risk remains very low, there are a couple things that you can do to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, there are a few things that you must do regularly. The number one thing that WHO recommends is to wash your hands regularly for at least 20 seconds. The WHO has also advised social distancing. Social distancing is maintaining at least 1 meter (3 feet) of distance between yourself and another person that may be coughing or sneezing. The new coronavirus is able to be transmitted via respiratory droplets, and therefore, you must exercise caution at all times. One can also practice good respiratory hygiene by making sure to cover your mouth when you sneeze, or avoiding touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, as the virus can enter the body through those parts and infect you. And the last thing that the World Health Organization recommends is to seek medical care early. If you feel like you have a fever, a cough, or difficulty breathing, seek medical attention as soon as possible. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
There is no way to tell when the coronavirus will end. Professor at Duke University and the former chair of the Global Health Council, Jonathan Quick, believes that the COVID-19 escalating to a pandemic is increasingly becoming more likely. He believes that the question that must be answered is when it does become a pandemic, how bad will it get and how long will it last? The fatality rate remains around 2%, which is much lower than SARs, but much higher than the flu. Professor Quick believes that there are too many unknowns to estimate anything about the virus. However, there is still hope for humanity. According to a recent study done by the Chinese Center for Disease Control, they believe that coronavirus in China peaked in early February, as China is reporting a declining number of new cases daily. In an interview with Business Insider, Lauren Meyers, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, revealed that there is one key number health officials look at when determining the virality of a disease: the “basic reproduction number.” The number is the average number of people that a single patient is expected to infect. If that number remains below one, it is safe to assume that the virus has run its course. Although the coronavirus is not at that state yet (its basic reproduction number is 2.2), with the number of new cases in China decreasing, the virus’s virality may be on the decrease as well. Bostonians should feel free to go about their normal lifestyle, but exercise caution by washing your hands frequently and seeking medical help whenever necessary.