Coronavirus Outbreak: Will WHO Declare a Public Health Emergency?
By Maya Garner
On Thursday January 30th, the World Wealth Organization (WHO) declared an international public health emergency in response to the continued outbreak of the new coronavirus. As of yet, 723 people have died from the virus and around 34,598 cases of contraction of the virus have been confirmed in China with around 288 cases internationally. A patient in the Philippines became the first to die of the virus outside China, and an American inside Wuhan became the first international person to die of the virus. The WHO’s declaration means that the UN now has to combat an evolving epidemic while navigating complicated political dynamics in the midst of public hysteria.
The decision to declare a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) came after cases occurred of human-to-human transmission of the virus between those who had not themselves recently traveled to China. Declaring a PHEIC means that the WHO considers the virus to pose a threat outside of China. More than 3,400 new cases were confirmed within 24 hours. The city of Wuhan is the most populous in China with a population of 11 million out of China’s total 1.4 billion people. China has restricted travel to and from the city and the surrounding area. WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stated that the relative low number of cases outside of China is largely due to the responses of the Chinese government. With the recent celebration of the Chinese New Year worldwide, more cases are expected to be detected internationally.
In the month since the outbreak was first discovered, there has been heavy international responses to the outbreak, such as the U.S. State Department issuing travel advice to its citizens not to travel to China, setting the new advisory at the highest threat level, while Russia is shutting down or restricting its 4200 km land border with China, closing 16 of 25 land crossing points and limiting visas. Americans who have flown back from Wuhan will be temporarily confined to an air base in California, while Australians will be confined for two weeks on a separate island. Medical clinics internationally have prepared for the arrival of patients with Coronavirus symptoms. Italy blocked six thousand passengers from leaving a cruise ship that had arrived at an Italian port due to a woman from Hong Kong experiencing flu-like symptoms.
The new Coronavirus is part of a family of coronaviruses: those who cause upper respiratory diseases, such as the common cold, and those who cause more serious lower respiratory diseases, such as viral pneumonia. Other rarer coronaviruses have caused outbreaks before, such as SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) in 2002-2003, or MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) in 2012-present. There were a recorded 8089 cases of SARS, primarily in Hong Kong and mainland China, which had a 9.6% fatality rate according to the WHO. There have been no known cases of SARS since 2004. For MERS there have been a reported 2494 cases since 2012 with a fatality rate of 34.4-37.1%. As such, the new Coronavirus has already surpassed number of cases of SARS or MERS, but by contrast the new Coronavirus has a case fatality rate of only 2%. While most of those infected with the Coronavirus experience simple flu-like symptoms, others develop potentially fatal viral pneumonia. There is no known cure and treatment takes the form of support and the prevention of spread. However, due to the relative novelty of the virus, countries’ ability to contain its spread cannot be determined as of yet.
After the lockdown of the city, the streets of Wuhan have gone very quiet with people refraining from going outside. The population of Wuhan has directed anger at local authorities for their handling of the outbreak and have expressed concern of rising prices and the risk of the shutdown causing food shortages and the closure of local businesses. Officials have stated that medical supplies are running low in central China despite international deliveries. Meanwhile, Taiwan expressed anger at the Chinese authorities for not letting it evacuate 300 members of the Taiwanese population from Wuhan, despite giving Japan, the U.S. and others permission. The denial of this request plays into the political dispute over Taiwan’s independence from China.
The WHO’s guidelines for declaring a PHEIC came in 2005, after the end of the SARS epidemic, and were used in the handling of the Ebola Virus in 2014. In the latter case, the declaration came several months too late and was delayed due to political factors, rather than simply prioritizing public health. In the case of the Coronavirus, the WHO is dealing with a powerful economy and the decision to declare a PHEIC has political implications. China’s status as a powerful economy and military has stirred tensions among its neighboring countries and among countries in the West. The Coronavirus outbreak appears to have caused some to see opportunity for rivalry from damage caused to China’s economic influence, while others fear the impacts on international economies. U.S. commerce secretary Wilbur Ross stated that the outbreak would “help to accelerate the return of jobs to North America,” although he denied that he was taking a “victory lap over a very unfortunate, very malignant disease.” Ross’ statement reflects broader attitudes toward China’s economic power. Furthermore, the international panic that has ensued has ignited anti-Chinese sentiments around the world, and larger political dynamics and anxieties have translated down to individuals’ display of bigotry and xenophobia toward Chinese individuals. As such, the WHO is faced with combating an ongoing epidemic while navigating the fine lines of political pressure from international governments as well as the Chinese government itself, while safeguarding Chinese and international population against the spread of disease, abuse of power, and xenophobic attitudes.