COVID-19 is a pandemic.
The novel coronavirus, which first emerged in Wuhan, China, has now—as of March 4—infected people in over 75 countries, on all continents save Antarctica.
There are now more than 94,000 cases worldwide with over 3,000 deaths. Both of those numbers will continue to rise as the virus rips through a global village with no prior immunity among the human population. Canada has now reported 33 cases, which will also continue to escalate.
The mortality rate of those infected appears to lie somewhere between 3 and 4 percent, though this too is evolving. Putting this in context, it is about 30 to 40 times more deadly than the seasonal flu.
Gargantuan—arguably draconian—measures taken by China have done much to slow the spread. But the new coronavirus is no longer contained. It has gone global.
By definition, COVID-19 is now a pandemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a pandemic as the worldwide spread of a new infection, one to which human immune systems do not yet possess acquired immunity.
The fact that the WHO and other national level public health organizations—like the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Center for Disease Control south of the border—are not using the term “pandemic” is likely largely political. Concerns over implications for the economy being at the forefront.
Whether this has far-reaching consequences remains to be seen.
But nevertheless, COVID-19 is behaving exactly as a pandemic does. Rapidly spreading and ignoring the false constructs of national borders.
So far, regions lacking strong public health infrastructure have—mercifully—been spared. But the assault on these communities is only a matter of time, if strong mitigating measures are not taken.
Think of the 70 million people worldwide displaced from their homes as part of the global migration crisis. Think of the large chunk of the developing world where basic health care systems are lacking at the best of times, let alone having the capacity to respond to a global outbreak.
And yes, think of Canada’s Indigenous communities, where health outcomes are abhorrently dismal, where overcrowding is shamefully the norm, and where health care is largely absent by comparison to the remainder of our country. These communities are highly vulnerable to such an outbreak, as we saw with the H1N1 virus—the so-called swine flu—in 2009.
There is no effective treatment for COVID-19 at present and we cannot be sure if or when a vaccine will be found.
There are, however, relatively simple public health measures that can be taken. This is especially true in a resource-rich setting like Canada. But we need to take this seriously, and call the out the problem for what it is.
Back in 2003, SARS caught our health system off guard. We paid the price. We need to avoid the same mistakes this time around.
More importantly, as the unintended consequences of a globalized world become apparent, investment—not divestment, as is the mode du jour—in public health infrastructure has never been more important.
COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic. It is simply a taste of what is to come.
Infectious diseases themselves are not political. Unfortunately, public health policy is.
And that’s where the problem lies.
We still have a chance to get this right. For this rodeo, and for the future.
Editor's note: This piece was updated Wednesday, March 11, 2020, at 10:20 PT to indicate that the coronavirus has been declared pandemic, rather than that it should be declared a pandemic, which the author said when he filed this piece before it was declared a pandemic.