Epicentre of COVID-19 pandemic shifts to Europe

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Besides Italy, Spain, Germany and France reporting very high number of cases, all other countries in Europe have recorded at least one case so far, thus shifting the epicentre of the pandemic from China to Europe.

With 1,08,399 cases reported from outside mainland China as on March 17, there are more number of people infected with novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) in other parts of the world than mainland China (81,053). Also, as on March 17, the number of deaths (4,279) in the rest of the world is more than in mainland China (3,226).

On Monday, there was just one new laboratory-confirmed case and 12 deaths reported in Wuhan; outside Wuhan, no new case has been reported from Hubei province for 12 consecutive days.

Even as Iran recorded 16,169 cases and 988 deaths so far, it is in Europe that the virus seems to be galloping. Besides four countries reporting very high number of cases, all other countries in Europe have recorded at least one case so far, thus shifting the epicentre of the pandemic from China to Europe.

Four most affected countries in Europe

Italy and Spain have been the two most affected countries with 27,980 and 11,309 cases, respectively. On March 16, with 3,590 new cases, Italy reported the biggest jump in case load in a single day while the number of deaths in Spain nearly doubled to 288. Germany (8,084) and France (6,664) have been the other two other countries that have been badly affected. With 2,158 deaths, Italy has reported the highest mortality from coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outside China.

Taiwan was the first off the block

There big lessons that India and the rest of the world can learn from Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea on containing the spread of the virus. Taiwan began screening people at airports even before China reported its first case of human-to-human transmission on January 20. Together with shutting its borders by end of January, it raised public awareness about the virus and the disease, and ways to minimise risk through hand washing and use of face mask. Taiwan essentially cut the transmission chain even before the virus could gain a foothold in the country.

Aggressive testing by Singapore

Following the World Health Organization’s guidelines to a tee, Singapore went after all suspect cases by testing all influenza-like and pneumonia cases and by aggressively tracing contacts. Like Taiwan and Hong Kong, Singapore too instituted travel restrictions by early February. It followed the carrot and stick policy to ensure cent percent isolation compliance. Not only did Singapore make testing and treatment free for all its residents, but also paid $100 a day to self-employed people to ensure none violated quarantine. And those who do not strictly isolate can expect a fine of up to $10,000 or up to six months in prison.

Besides closing most of the border crossings with China and contact tracing, Hong Kong had 14-day quarantine in place from February 5 onwards and containment measures — shutting down schools and asking people to work from home — in place by end of January.

South Korea’s massive community-level screening, contact tracing and quarantining after the outbreaks in two churches helped contain the spread. As much as 15,000 tests are being done each day leading to over 200,000 screenings so far. Thanks to its aggressive testing of people in the community, more cases were reported but the mortality rate stayed far below that of the global rate.

U.S. flounders

Contrast this with the manner in which the U.S. floundered for weeks on several fronts, including flawed testing kits. The worse was the alternate reality that President Donald Trump tried to present about the outbreak and gagging scientists from speaking about the outbreak without seeking prior permission.

One lesson to learn from the COVID-19 pandemic is how containing an outbreak is dependent on quick public-health responses and not allow politics to override public health. 

Published in The Hindu on March 18, 2020