by Hans Izaak Kriek*
The World Health Organization, WHO declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus outbreak a pandemic, acknowledging what has seemed clear for some time, the virus will likely spread to all countries on the globe. Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the situation will worsen. “We expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher,” said Tedros, as the director-general is known.
As of Wednesday, 114 countries have reported that 118,000 have contracted Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, known as SARS-CoV2. Nearly 4,300 people have died.
In the United States, where for weeks state and local laboratories could not test for the virus, just over 1,000 cases have been diagnosed and 29 people have died. But authorities here warn continuing limits on testing mean the full scale of spread in this country is not yet known. The virus causes mild respiratory infections in about 80% of those infected, though about half will have pneumonia. Another 15% develop severe illness, and 5% need critical care.
WHO officials had said earlier they were hesitant to call the outbreak a pandemic in case it led governments and individuals to give up the fight. They stressed that fundamental public health interventions can still limit the spread of the virus and drive down cases even where it was transmitting widely, as the work of authorities and communities in China, Singapore, and South Korea has shown.
“Describing the situation as a pandemic does not change WHO’s assessment of the threat posed by this coronavirus,” Tedros said at the WHO’s headquarters in Geneva, in making the announcement. “It doesn’t change what WHO is doing, and it doesn’t change what countries should do.” At the same time, Tedros said: “This is not just a public health crisis, it is a crisis that will touch every sector, so every sector and every individual must be involved in the fight.” He said this was the first coronavirus to reach pandemic levels, but also said “we have never before seen a pandemic that can be controlled.
The virus, which probably originated in bats but passed to people via an as yet unrecognized intermediary animal species, is believed to have started infecting people in Wuhan, China, in late November or early December. Since then the virus has raced around the globe.
While China appears on the verge of stopping its outbreak, it reported only 24 cases on Tuesday, outbreaks are occurring and growing in a number of locations around the world including Italy, Iran, and the United States.
South Korea, which has reported nearly 8,000 cases, also appears poised to bring its outbreak under control with aggressive measures and widespread testing. But other countries have struggled to follow the leads of China and South Korea, a reality that has frustrated WHO officials who have exhorted the world to do everything possible to end transmission of the virus.
“We cannot say this loudly enough or clearly enough or often enough: All countries can still change the course of this pandemic,” the director of the WHO said Wednesday.
Tedros used the fact that 90% of the cumulative cases have been reported in just four countries as evidence that the rest of the world still had time to prevent an explosion of cases with action.
President Trump announced Wednesday that he will be suspending all travel from Europe to the U.S. for 30 days starting Friday at midnight in an effort to quell the spread of coronavirus. His address from the Oval Office comes hours after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic and the number of confirmed cases in the U.S. climbed to more than 1,000. Trump said the new travel exemptions do not apply to the United Kingdom.
He reiterated that travel restrictions from China, the epicenter of the virus, which originated in Wuhan, and South Korea will remain in effect but he would be willing to consider a ‘possible early opening’ if the situation improves. The president also announced that he would be asking Congress to consider an ‘immediate payroll tax relief’, which would eliminate the 6.2 percent tax on an employee’s salary up to $137,000 if they receive a paycheck, as well as the amount matched by employers to fund Social Security, an idea that he has previously floated and was met with skepticism by Republican lawmakers.
As the financial markets continued to fluctuate, stoking fears of economic downturn, Trump also announced that he will be asking the Small Business Administration, a sector of the federal government, to provide low-interest loans to small businesses negatively impacted by the virus.
Invoking emergency authority, Trump asked Congress to authorize $50 billion toward the initiative, this in addition to the $8.3 billion of funding that has already been allocated to fighting the virus. The president said he has also asked insurance companies to waive all copayments for coronavirus testing and treatments. Trump said ‘the risk is very very low’ for Americans and reiterated that the greatest threat is to elderly populations with underlying health conditions.
The Italian government has determined that all stores across the country should be closed, with the exception of pharmacies and shops selling food. Also, cafes and hairdressers have to close, as do restaurants where guests are less than 1 meter apart. They are allowed to bring food to their home.
All non-essential activity comes to a halt. Banks and post offices will remain open and public transport will continue to run limited. Schools and theaters were already closed and all sports matches had already been canceled. Almost 900 people have already died of the virus in Italy.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a stark warning Wednesday, citing expert estimates that up to 60 to 70 percent of the population could be infected by the coronavirus.
Speaking at a news conference in Berlin alongside Jens Spahn, German’s health minister, Merkel said there was no known cure and the focus would be on slowing the spread of the virus. “When the virus is out there, the population has no immunity and no therapy exists, then 60 to 70 percent of the population will be infected,” she said. The population of Germany is about 83 million people.
“The process has to be focused on not overburdening the health system by slowing the virus’ spread. It’s about winning time,” she added, according to Reuters.
As of Wednesday, Germany had almost 1,300 cases of the virus, according to the Robert Koch Institute for disease control, and three deaths.
David Jacobson, a professor of global business strategy at SMU’s Cox School of Business and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University in Beijing, told earlier this month that Germany had ‘taken this disease seriously since December’.
They are committed to transparency, testing and have devoted a huge amount of resources to track sources of what appears to be community spread so that the root cause of each chain can be found and those connected in any way can be warned, isolated, tested, etc.," he said.
"On March 3, the Italian government was still deciding if this was an Asian problem or something different. When an Italian senator wore a face mask to the senate chambers, he was ridiculed." Nonetheless, Merkel had yet to address the situation publicly and had been criticized in the media for her failure of leadership. ‘No appearances, no speech, no leadership in the crisis’, the German daily Bild wrote.
Both Merkel and Spahn, who is leading his country’s response to the virus, have ruled out sealing Germany’s borders to prevent the virus spreading, rejecting calls to follow neighbor Austria’s lead. "This is a test for our solidarity, our common sense and care for each other. And I hope we pass the test," Merkel said during the press conference. But the chancellor also said she would not rule out suspending a so-called ‘black zero’ budget, keeping the books balance, to help fight the virus.
Germany’s federal system of government has come under the spotlight as the response to the virus comes to the forefront. Under the system, power is devolved to the 16 states and regional authorities to decide whether to take up Spahn’s advice to cancel events with over 1,000 participants.
It is striking that there is great controversy in Europe on how to combat and tackle the problems with the virus. Especially now that the business community is undergoing major blows, such as the airlines and the tourist industry. It will certainly take months and it remains to be seen how the financial losses should be absorbed.
Suggestions we hear include whether the virus will be used for political purposes and whether there is a plot by China.
*International political commentator for European Business Review and editor-in-chief at Kriek Media