Societies around the world have been caught flat-footed after the spread of a new disease now named COVID-19 carried by the novel coronavirus has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It has exposed how ill-prepared most governments, including governments from First World countries are, to a threat of mass casualties.
One of the reasons for the rapid spread of the virus has to do with a lack of transparency and governments being in denial that the impact of the virus would be as severe as health officials have warned. In China, leaders did not act fast enough to contain the spread of the virus and took a few months before warning the world of what was happening in Wuhan province where the virus was reported to have originated. U.S. President Donald Trump was even quoted as saying “It’ll go away.” That was before Hollywood celebrities started getting infected.
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Now Trump has declared a national emergency even praising his own policy of closing U.S. borders to stop infected people from entering the country. Other countries have finally imposed bans against international travellers coming from countries the WHO considers COVID-19 epicentres. But that was not enough as evident in one case in the Philippines. While the public was clamouring for President Rodrigo Dutere to ban travellers from China, one person who tested positive for COVID-19 recently travelled from Japan. Duterte has now imposed a soft lockdown of Metro Manila for one month in an effort to contain the spread of the virus.
It is understandable why leaders were hesitant in giving dire warnings. They were trying to protect the economy from crashing and were likely trying to keep the public calm and prevent panic buying. They were also trying to project an image that things are “under control”. Unfortunately, they came across as dismissive, insensitive and ill-prepared for a virus that does not discriminate. The fact that even the rich and famous get infected is proof that the virus can get to anyone. But not everyone has the resources to get medical attention as quickly as those with money and connections. I suppose politicians needed proof that things were getting bad before acting “swiftly”. The proof is in how many people are dying from the disease and how fast.
The rapid spread of the virus from China to Italy where deaths have reached four-digit figures in just a matter of weeks should tell us something – that massive influxes of tourists around the world is wreaking havoc not just on the environment, but also pose a threat to local people’s health. History should have taught us how to prevent the spread of diseases. It is a known fact that the first European settlers coming to America in the 15th Century brought in smallpox, influenza, measles, typhus, scarlet fever, yellow fever, diphtheria, chicken pox, and whooping cough to Native Americans who had no immunity to the diseases. These diseases killed far more natives than their conquerors’ weapons.
This is not to suggest countries stop allowing tourists in. It is about time testing international travellers for diseases before entering the country should be mandatory. While Immigration officers check for items that could pose a threat to wildlife, a new measure should be introduced to check if international travellers are bringing in diseases that could pose threats to humans. The speed with which COVID-19 affected thousands of people worldwide should justify this proposed policy.
Societies going on lockdown mode to prevent further infection are also redefining how people live and work. Some companies have allowed their employees to work from home as a precaution. Advancements in technology and evolution in the way humans communicate using these technologies have made all this possible. The question is, what price are humans paying for this new trend called “social distancing”?
It is bad enough that technology and social media have made people become anti-social, now the behaviour is becoming normalised due to the fear of getting sick after human contact. Mass gatherings and social events like concerts and sporting events have been cancelled to protect the public. While they are all justifiable moves, humans cannot live in isolation for a long period of time. In-person human interaction is all part and parcel of life. We are all social creatures. We crave to see and be seen outside of our homes. This is why societies hold festivals like Oktoberfest, Diwali, the Thanksgiving parade and the Easter Show. We cannot cancel community gatherings forever.
Humans have survived all kinds of diseases in the past. Humans will survive COVID-19 too. We just need to evolve and find a new way to share the world we live in by introducing a more stringent method of screening for infectious diseases that can affect the most vulnerable members of society.
In life, things are not always what they seem.