As nearly 1,000 have died and nearly 40,000 people have become infected in China alone with Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia (NCP), tensions between China and the rest of the world are at an all-time high. Any viral infection will have both a public health and sociological effect on an international stage, but the way that bias and racism have taken part in this crisis is unprecedented. While many political and health leaders are quick to respond to the epidemic with egregious claims of Chinas healthcare system failing its people, I think that this crisis is much more than that.
What is Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia? Coronaviruses are known for having crown (corona) shaped envelope glycoproteins, or head of the molecule. 2019-Novel Coronavirus is a specific kind of coronavirus associated with causing symptoms that weaken the body and lead to pneumonia, a condition where the lungs fill with fluid, which is the cause of death for the individuals who have died. Coronaviruses are not always lethal, but SARS-CoV (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS-CoV (Middle East respiratory syndrome) strains have been particularly virulent and noxious.
So, how do these two concepts of disease and social tensions intersect? Columbia University gathered a panel of experts to discuss these very questions.
Dr. David Ho, known for his work on the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s, discussed the sheer number of individuals suffering coronavirus and the specifics of the disease. Specifically, 813 people have died and more than 37,000 cases of infection have occurred, which is nearly 1% of the city of Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. The R0 value, or the number of individuals that can be infected by one person, is 1.5 to 4, depending on the study. Relative to the influenza (R0 = 1.3) this year, NCP is much more contagious without a readily available vaccine. Since coronaviruses are so small, there is little reason to wear a mask for protection. Rather, maintaining a habit of washing hands and not coming in contact with sick individuals is highly advised.
Another panelist, Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, who is known for her epidemiological and public health work on HIV/AIDS and Ebola, discussed how poorly the world has reacted to NCP outbreak. By emphasizing identification and communication as keys to reducing the virus’s impact, she was able to identify flaws in China’s response. The facts are clear: China knew about the virus’s capability to infect nearly three weeks before it alerted the rest of the world. According to Dr. El-Sadr, this is a complete failure on China’s part.
Along with the medical issues itself, the virus has brought forth bias, racism and stigma reminiscent of people of the AIDS epidemic in the ‘80s. In the United States, the virus has ripped open the stitches from already painful relations. Benjamin Liebman, a Columbia law professor with expertise on Chinese legal studies, discusses how weak primary care, the low trust in medical services, not enough funding and corruption in the system all contribute to a failure?
In the U.S., we have the same issues as China, people are dying from preventable and curable conditions and disease. But would the United States have reacted any differently? I don’t think so. After following physicians at some of the world’s top medical institutions on both coasts, I see holes in the systems that are meant to protect people just like they are in China. Overworked, exhausted physicians and overlooked systems of reporting epidemics are among the simpler issues that our healthcare system faces.
So, how can we recover and what can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen in the U.S.? I think that communication and transparency is vital to maintaining public health in all aspects. Everyone needs to trust in their physician, and their physician needs to trust in the systems that have been set up by the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. China had the scientific ability to quickly identify the virus but was too slow and failed to act upon its intuition; the world cannot make this mistake again. We cannot point fingers in the future, it simply wastes time and lets more people die. Rather than pulling people apart because we believe that a group of people caused the virus, be pulled together by the collective loss that people experience and work harder to solve this problem. At the end of the day, are you willing to help that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?
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Austin Fergusson is a contributor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.