Indian authorities confirmed on Wednesday that the country has now seen 28 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which is commonly being referred to as coronavirus.
Until a few days ago, there had just been three cases in the country – students who had returned from Wuhan in China – and all had recovered. The new cases, however, make it clear that India will notbe immune from the disease, which has now spread to more than 93,000 people in 70 countries.
The news has also caused a certain amount of panic: Pharmacies are running out of masks and hand sanitisers, parents are worried about sending their children to school and every announcement of a new case prompts a fearful response about who else might have been infected.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a host of top officials called on people to avoid large gatherings ahead of Holi, a major North Indian festival, which is on March 10.
As feared by many, concerned about the potential fallout in a country that has a huge population, densely packed cities and an inadequate healthcare system, the virus is here. What do we do about it?
What is coronavirus?
Technically speaking, the “Wuhan virus”, so called because the Chinese city of Wuhan in the Hubei province is the epicentre of the current breakout, is one of many kinds of coronaviruses.
The World Health Organisation says coronavirus are a “large family of viruses that cause illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV)“.
But the term has come to be attached to COVID-19, the specific disease caused by the newest coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan.
COVID-19 refers to the “Corona” “Virus” “Disease”, with 19 being a reference to 2019, when it was first identified. The term “Wuhan virus” was dropped because international guideliness recommend against naming disease in connection with “geographical location, animal species or groups of people”, to avoid stigmatisation.
Coronavirus also happens to be the name of a mask-wearing character in the Asterix books:
What does COVID-19 do to you?
COVID-19 is a lot like the flu. Those who have it have reported symptoms like a persistent cough, fever, a runny nose and aches and pains. For the vast majority of people who contract the disease – more than 80% according to the WHO – that is all. Just like the flu, they get the disease, fall ill for a few days, and eventually recover.
Less than 20% end up developing more serious symptoms, particularly breathing difficulties. If they already have an underlying condition, or are elderly, they are at a higher risk of this. The danger is contracting pneumonia.
Per the most recent numbers, the mortality rate – the number of people who have died after contracting COVID-19 – is 3.4%. That number may be much higher than the regular flu, which has a mortality rate of under 1%, but it still means that the overwhelming majority of people are not at risk of death from this disease.
Why is everyone so worried then?
Let’s reiterate: The mortality rate for the disease is still extremely low. Other coronaviruses have been much deadlier. SARS, for example, had a fatality rate of nearly 10%. MERS was even higher, above 30%.
But it is still more dangerous than the regular flu. For those of us with access to medicines and healthcare, that may not sound worrisome. But influenzas can still be deadly to those without such luxuries. For context, H1N1, also known as “swine flu”, killed nine people in February.
More importantly, COVID-19 does not have a vaccine yet. Experts anticipate that the quickest possible vaccine is still at least a year away, and more likely will take around 18 months.
In the interim, the virus remains a genuine danger, particularly for those who already have underlying conditions like heart disease and the elderly.
That is why China took drastic measures in an attempt to prevent the virus from escaping the Hubei province, and why markets around the world have tanked following concerns that the economic impact of the disease could be large.
This also explains why it is important to prevent the spread of the disease: You might be a healthy individual, unlikely to face any major problem even if you contract COVID-19, but if you don’t take recommended measures, you might still end up spreading it to those who are at risk.
So how do you avoid contracting and spreading it?
Once again, remember that for the vast majority of people, the effects of COVID-19 will be extremely mild. You will not be able to tell the difference between a common cold, the flu and COVID-19. This means there is no need to panic, but, as a result, the disease is harder to spot in individuals. Even those who are carrying it may not know.
Hence, it is most important for everyone to take measure to reduce the chances that they get or spread the disease.
The simplest way to do this is to wash your hands frequently, with soap and water. You should do this preferably in warm water, and for at least 20 seconds. That’s as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday to you” twice, or you could pick from the choruses of any one of the songs in this Twitter thread.
Wash your hands frequently and particularly after you have returned from outside, or touched objects that may have been touched by many others. Also remember to avoid touching your face – particularly your eyes, your nose and your mouth – before washing your hands.
The virus is killed by washing with soap and water, and it doesn’t infect you through your skin. So if you can avoid letting it contact your eyes, nose or mouth, you’re less likely to contract it.
An alternative is to use alcohol-based hand sanitisers. These need to have more than 60% alcohol for them to be effective against viruses. But most experts say that washing your hands with soap is the best bet.
The other simple rule is to avoid traveling to places that have had a big outbreak of the disease or gatherings where you are likely to run into people who have returned from those places. The countries most affected by the outbreak, with China, South Korea, Italy and Iran being at the very top of that list.
Follow Scroll.in’s COVID-19 coverage for regular updates on where the virus has spread or you can also download the Scroll.in app to get the information directly on your phone: For Android, click here. For iOS, click here.
Should I wear a facemask?
First, before you think about masks, remember good respiratory hygiene.
Before coughing or sneezing, make sure you are doing it into a tissue, that you immediately dispose. Don’t spit. And if you don’t have a tissue handy, sneeze or cough into the crook of your arm. If someone around you is coughing or sneezing, maintain a 1 metre distance, and if possible, gently tell them about these guidelines.
Moreover, if you are feeling unwell – particularly if you have a cough, are sneezing frequently or have a fever – avoid going to work or into big public spaces.
Now, about facemasks:
Experts say there is little evidence that wearing facemasks will prevent you from contracting the disease.
“A mask that is used to stop getting an infection is sometimes not very effective because people take it off to eat, many times they are worn improperly (and) if they get wet and somebody sneezes on that mask it could pass through,” one former WHO expert said.
However there are a few people who should wear them:
- Facemasks are recommended for those already ill, to prevent them from sneezing or coughing into someone else’s face.
- Facemasks are also mandatory for anyone who is likely to come into contact with those who are sick, particularly medical professionals.
This is the other reason that those who are not unwell should not go out and stockpile facemasks. A shortage of the N95 respirators could make it harder for sick peopoe, medical professionals or those at risk to get access to them.
Regular surgical masks will have little effect. If you have to get a mask, get an N95 respirator – and trim your facial hair so that you can wear it properly:
What do I do if I think I have symptoms?
If you are feeling unwell – in particular, if you have a fever or a persistent cough – the first thing is not to panic.
As has been made clear, the symptoms are the same as the flu or the common cold and, unless you have traveled to one of the affected areas or come into contact with someone who has, it is most likely that you don’t have COVID-19. Still, it is important that you don’t come into contact with too many people – stay away from office, public transport or large bgatherings.
As soon as possible then, get in touch with a doctor, or call the government helpline:
Where can I get more information?
The Government of India has collected all information about the new Coronavirus and COVID-19 in one place. This includes a national helpline number, +91-11-23978046, a helpline email ID, ncov2019[at]gmail[dot]com, and updated travel advisories.